Is The Gilded Age the new Downton Abbey? That's the question on everyone's lips.
The Gilded Age is Lord Julian Fellowes’ latest drama aiming to keep us gripped with lashings of secrets, romance, and glossy period backdrops.
Debuting on HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic in the UK, the series looks at class rivalry in 1880s New York City between the established "old money" and the ambitious nouveau riche.
But can the lives and loves of the warring van Rhijns and Russells prove as addictive as the antics of the Crawleys and their staff in Fellowes’ blockbuster series Downton Abbey, which returns for its second movie spin-off, Downton Abbey: A New Era in March?
We take a look at how the shows compare…
'The Gilded Age' V 'Downton Abbey': Sumptuous settings
The stunning fashions of the 1910s and 1920s as well as lavish locations from ornately-decorated stately homes to Scottish castles made Downton a feast for the eyes.
Bu even though The Gilded Age is set almost half a century earlier in the bustling streets of New York City rather than the Yorkshire countryside, it’s an equally gorgeous watch with elaborate 1880s-style costumes, chandelier-laden New York town houses and a conveyor belt of glittering balls and banquets.
“I was always interested in the so-called ‘Gilded Age,’ that period after the Civil War in the 1870s and 1880s, when enormous fortunes made from railway, shipping, copper and coal were flooding into New York," says Fellowes. “But it's the ‘gilded age,’ not the ‘golden age.’ It was all about the look of things, making the right appearance, creating the right image.”
'The Gilded Age' V 'Downton Abbey': Grande dames
The withering put-downs and hilarious one-liners from Dame Maggie Smith as Violet, the formidable Dowager Countess of Grantham, were a highlight of Downton Abbey, with fans looking forward to her delicious delivery of a host of bon mots every week.
In The Gilded Age, Christine Baranski definitely gives her a run for her money as the equally waspish "old money" matriarch Agnes van Rhijn, whether she’s snobbishly putting down her rivals, the wealthy, social-climbing George and Bertha Russell (Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon), or reminding her spinster sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) of the sacrifices she has made. But, just like Violet, beneath her intransigent views on the proper way to behave, there’s a tender heart hidden away as we see the love she has for her family.
“She’s really stringent. She’s very authoritative. She’s absolutely certain that her decision is the right decision. But as I played her and got to know her, I came to really like Agnes. She has a really dry, withering sense of humor,” says The Good Fight’s Baranski. “She’s one of those crusty old characters, but you also see a softer side.”
'The Gilded Age' V 'Downton Abbey': Spirited heroines
Like her granny Violet, Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) did not suffer fools gladly and she was determined to plough her own furrow as a thoroughly modern woman — remember her fatal liaison with poor Mr Pamuk?! — while trying to do her best for the family and the estate. And in her loving marriages to Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and then Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode), she was always on equal terms.
The Gilded Age’s kind but steely Marian Brook, played by Meryl Streep’s daughter Louisa Jacobson, appears to be cut from the same cloth as Mary. Although she has no choice but to move to New York from Pennsylvania to live with her aunts after her father leaves her penniless, she doesn’t seem to play the overly-grateful poor relation and soon develops her own strong views on the class conflict. It seems like she will also try to have own say in the marriage stakes, but will the Russells’ son Larry (Harry Richardson) or lawyer Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel) win her heart?
“Marian knows that her probable fate will be to marry as well as she can and survive, but she wants more than this," says Jacobson. “She is curtailed by the rules of her time, but there is a modern streak in her, too. She wants to do something with her life. She wants to be fulfilled.”
'The Gilded Age' V 'Downton Abbey': Social issues
Over the years, Downton Abbey explored countless issues from the early 20th century from illegitimacy and working women with Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) to social mobility as chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) married into the Crawley clan.
The Gilded Age also reflects the social concerns of 1880s, particularly through the class warfare between the new money Russells and the established upper classes such as the van Rhijns. But, unlike Downton, it also offers a fresh look at racial divisions at the time through budding writer Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) who befriends Marian and tries to make her own way in the Big Apple.
“I really connected with Peggy,” says Benton. “I could relate to her identity as the child of the first generation of a professional black family who must deal with the pressures and opportunities that come with that. Peggy must negotiate the politics of respectability at that time and what it meant to operate as a black woman in white spaces.”
'The Gilded Age' V 'Downton Abbey': Life below stairs
Downton Abbey's staff had just as much screen time as their masters and mistresses and were often at the heart of thrilling plotlines from the slow-burning romance between proud butler Carson (Jim Carter) and firm but fair housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) to the drama surrounding enigmatic valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), scheming footman-turned-butler Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and devious lady’s maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran)
While The Gilded Age seems to place more emphasis on the upper echelons of society, their servants still get a decent look-in. Mystery surrounds George Russell’s valet Watson (Michael Cerveris), Bertha’s sly, lady’s maid Turner (Kelley Curran) seems to be very much in the mould of O’Brien and the Russells' new housekeeper Mrs Bruce (Celia Keenan-Bolger) has to help her mistress make a good impression.
“When we recreate that period, we're as interested in the people working below the stairs as we are in the people above it,” says Fellowes. “It was an integral part of that life, and I don't really see how you can tell those stories anymore and not define the servant characters because they were all there. They were all thinking and feeling and having opinions about their employers and plans for their own lives."
Where can I watch 'The Gilded Age'?
The nine-part series airs on HBO in the US from Monday 24 January 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT and on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV in the UK from Tuesday 25 January at 9pm.
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Caren has been a journalist specializing in TV for almost two decades and is a Senior Features Writer for TV Times, TV & Satellite Week and What’s On TV magazines and she also writes for What to Watch.
Over the years, she has spent many a day in a muddy field or an on-set catering bus chatting to numerous stars on location including the likes of Olivia Colman, David Tennant, Suranne Jones, Jamie Dornan, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Derek Jacobi as well as Hollywood actors such as Glenn Close and Kiefer Sutherland.
Caren will happily sit down and watch any kind of telly (well, maybe not sci-fi!), but she particularly loves period dramas like Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey and The Crown and she’s also a big fan of juicy crime thrillers from Line of Duty to Poirot.
In her spare time, Caren enjoys going to the cinema and theatre or curling up with a good book.