British writer Julian Fellowes has the number one movie in America right now with Downton Abbey, and as his upcoming series The Gilded Age hopes to prove both narratively and by example, its amazing what the scent of success can do for you in the United States.
Less than a week after the Downton film's release, The Gilded Age, which has been churning around in developmental hell since 2016 and recently transferred from NBC to the far tonier HBO, suddenly has an all-star cast that so-far includes Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, Amanda Peet, and Morgan Spector. Undoubtedly, Downton's $31 million opening weekend likely helped close up any lingering deals.
Still, one might wonder what exactly is The Gilded Age about? While it wouldn't be the most incorrect thing in the world to simply call it the "American Abbey," as it will focus on class and social mores in the somewhat recent past. Though, class and social mores have always been an entirely different thing in America than they have been across the pond. So don't expect a one-for-one reapplication of the format. America doesn't even have an "official" aristocracy, let alone ones that makes their homes in Abbeys.
Instead, The Gilded Age will be far more urban, set mostly in New York City. As the name more than suggests, it will take place during the period known as "the gilded age," which began shortly after the Civil War and saw the economy of the north boom. This was the age when families like the Astors and Vanderbilts came to social prominence and social wars between "old money" and "new money" were often the talk of the town, but the gold-plated trappings of the era only somewhat masked the serious social issues unraveling. This was also an era rife with inequality. Popular plans to curb that inequality emerged so radical that they might make Bernie Sanders blush, but were met with opposition so heartless even Mitch McConnell might find them too draconian (well, maybe). This was also the era that saw the rise of prohibition, women's suffragettes, and the labor movement (for whom we can thank for the eight-hour work day and the end of child labor). The period also coincided with the end of Reformation and saw the beginnings of the Jim Crow south. It's a lot of ground to tackle for one somewhat soapy television serious, but it looks like Fellows is prepared to at least cover some of it from the character descriptions so far.
"These people were extraordinary. You can see why they frightened the old guard, because they saw no boundaries," Fellows said of the series when it was first announced in 2016. "They wanted to build a palace, they built a palace. They wanted to buy a yacht, they bought a yacht. And the old guard in New York weren’t like that at all, and suddenly this whirlwind of couture descended on their heads. They redesigned being rich. They created a rich culture that we still have—people who are rich are rich in a way that was established in America in the 1880s, ’90s, 1900s. It was different from Europe."
Character description for the newly announced cast sheds further light on what exactly he's up to. Let's dive in.
Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon Will Play Old Money Sisters
According to Deadline, Baranski will play "Agnes van Rhijn" while Nixon will play her sister "Ada Brook." The pair grew up fabulously wealthy on a plantation in the South thanks to their father's ritual abuse and enslavement of African-Americans, but the family's fortunes faltered even before the war. Agnes, however, managed to snag a rich husband, and maintains her old money view of the world. Nixon's character meanwhile wasn't so lucky and is forced to rely on her sister to survive. In a sense then, the two sisters represent two sides of the "old money" coin so to speak. Only one managed to land head's up.
While no casting notice would confirm such a thing, we wouldn't be surprised if Baranski becomes the vehicle through which Fellowes feeds his particularly devastating one-liners a la Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess.
Amanda Peet Plays a Middle Class Striver
Peet plays "Bertha Russell," a character who emerges from the middle class (remember that?) who manages to marry a well-to-do man whose financial savvy (if not scheming) only serves to grow his wealth. Bertha, of course, is set on shaking up the highest levels of NYC society, and serves as our avatar for "new money" ambition.
George Spector Will Play Bertha's Ruthless Husband
Spector plays Bertha's husband, who Deadline reports may seem pleasant enough at home and amongst polite company, but when it comes to business he's ruthless. Robber baron level ruthless to be exact (the Gilded Age is when the term originated, after all). The description is thin, but, frankly, could be applied to the men who established just about every single prominent family at the time (think your Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Flaglers, Carnegies, Mellons, Morgans and Hearsts, for starters).
The Two Main Roles, However, Remain Uncast
"Marian Brook" will be the show's central character. She's the orphaned daughter of a Confederate general who is forced to move in with her aunts (that would be Baranski and Nixon) and gets caught up with the glitter of society. Meanwhile she's accompanied by "Peggy Scott," an African-American woman who poses as her maid, in a promising sign that the show will tackle the inherent racial issues at play with a show about the daughters of slave owners and Confederate higher ups. Though, no other characters representing minorities nor the working class have been mention. So far, that is. We're sure we'll hear more soon.
Also not mentioned one way or another in the news is the possibility of any potential Downton crossovers. Fellows has mentioned the idea that younger versions of characters from the show (particularly the American-hating Dowager Countess) could appear.
HBO has already committed to ten episodes for the series that will premiere in 2020.
Fellowes, by the way, also has another series in development at Epix entitled Belgravia.