After years of development, the American heir to Downton Abbey is finally coming to the small screen. The series, called The Gilded Age, which was first put into pre-production six years ago in 2012, was finally ordered to series for the 2018-2019 season by NBC last week.
It's been a long road from initial development to episode order for The Gilded Age. Since that time, Downton became a global smash, and star Dan Stevens quit the show, eventually going on to become a Disney prince in Beauty and the Beast and an X-Man in Legion. Downton Abbey wrapped up after six seasons and aired their last episode stateside in early 2016. But, finally, it looks like NBC has a product they are happy with. The show's order will be for 10 one-hour episodes to debut in 2019.
According to Variety, the synopsis for the series reads:
The Gilded Age in 1880s New York City was a period of immense social upheaval, of huge fortunes made and lost, and of palaces that spanned the length of Fifth Avenue. In the series, Marian Brook is the wide-eyed young scion of a conservative family who will embark on infiltrating the wealthy neighboring family dominated by ruthless railroad tycoon George Russell, his rakish and available son Larry, and his ambitious wife Bertha, whose “new money” is a barrier to acceptance by the Astor and Vanderbilt set.
Fans of Downton Abbey will remember that 2012 was the year that the show really took off stateside, after the truncated version of Season 1 (reduced down to four episodes from the original 7) aired over here in January of 2011.
The series' deep dive into World War I, ending with Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) getting engaged to Matthew (Stevens) in Season 2's Christmas special finale turned the show into Masterpiece's biggest hit since the 1970s Poldark series. The show was co-produced by Masterpiece, along with Carnival Films. Carnival is owned by NBCUniversal, who took one look at the little hit that could that they had consigned to PBS, and decided to have creator Julian Fellowes invent an Americanized version for their flagship broadcast channel, NBC.
So how does this show relate to Downton Abbey? Can The Gilded Age once again hit that magical formula of mining the past in an accessible manner, with a rich soap opera family worth obsessing over, and yet managed to include the feel-good "family drama of the week" of yesteryear, all in one perfect package? That remains to be seen. But one could consider the show a prequel of sorts.
As fans of the series know, Robert Crawley's (Hugh Bonneville) money doesn't come from his family. The Grantham estate was broke by the time he came of age and would have had to have been sold off if he didn't marry well. Enter Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern). She was a wealthy American socialite in New York City, born into this same new money crowd The Gilded Age will be focusing on. If you read her bio, she was born Cora Levinson in 1868, the only child of Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi-millionaire. That would put her at the age of 18, and ready to become a debutante heiress in 1885, which is right smack in the middle of when The Gilded Age begins, and a contemporary of the characters we'll meet.
Like many of that era, Cora's mother, Martha (Shirley MacLaine), took her daughter to London when she was 21 (around 1888 or so). Though the newly rich in the U.S. had money, what they wanted to go with it was the respect that old money, (i.e.: the aristocracy) gets. Downton Abbey touched on this some with Lady Mary's first fiance, Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen) in Season 2. Her lot inherits it; his lot buys in. Meanwhile, many titled families in the U.K. were already in monetary decline and desperately needed rich spouses to keep those inherited hallmarks of wealth, like an estate and all that comes with it, in the family. It was marriages like these, and the influx of American cash they brought with them, that kept the nobility going until World War I.
It is highly doubtful that The Gilded Age would feature the Levinson family, or even drop an easter egg about Cora and Robert's marriage. But trips to London by those newly made millionaires to find titles and land and tiaras (and the fortune-hunting husbands that have them) will most likely be at least mentioned as a subplot of the new series.
Fellowes said in a statement he was over the moon to have this come to fruition.
To write The Gilded Age is the fulfillment of a personal dream. I have been fascinated by this period of American history for many years and now NBC has given me the chance to bring it to a modern audience. I could not be more excited and thrilled. The truth is, America is a wonderful country with a rich and varied history, and nothing could give me more pleasure than be the person to bring that compelling history to the screen.
The Gilded Age will premiere on NBC sometime in 2019.