Julian Fellowes 'Gilded Age', New York's 'Downton Abbey': Some suggestions and a few pipe dreams
It's a different world: Illustrating the difficulty of a New York TV show set in the 1880s, above is a picture of the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The Reservoir is off to the left, where the New York Public Library is today. More on this photo here.
Ever since the announcement that 'Downton Abbey' creator Julian Fellowes would be developing a show for NBC about 1880s New York, blogs have been excitedly speculating its contents. Will 'The Gilded Age' be have the same 'Upstairs Downstairs' dynamic that informed Fellowes' Oscar-winning script for 'Gosford Park'? Will it feature real-life New Yorkers like Alva Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan? Which American actress will be cast in a Maggie Smith-like dowager role? (Leading candidates may include Susan Sarandon, Cherry Jones and -- if she can be wrested away from 'American Horror Story' -- Jessica Lange.)
This era is ripe for proper television treatment but, with its degree of difficulty, could easily run afoul of mediocrity. Some things hopefully show creators will consider:
-- Don't skimp: The 1880s is one of the more formative decades of New York history. It exists mostly in fantasy, as only a few notable buildings from before this period still exist, and many of New York's grandest structures were just being constructed (Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, among others). The tallest building in New York was the Equitable Building at a whopping seven floors. (I mentioned the Equitable in my post on the Williamsburg fire, as it burnt to the ground in 1912.) New Yorkers got around by elevated railroad and streetcar. They spent a Saturday afternoon strolling upon the Reservoir and or visiting the newly built Metropolitan Opera House near Herald Square.
-- Don't film in Burbank. Or London. Or Toronto: Even though the big set pieces will be created by matte painting and CGI, New York still enjoys hundreds of brownstones from this period, literally begging to be used. There are dozens of historic districts in New York; just edit out the Dunkin Donuts on the corner, and you're set! Do not make the 'Mad Men' mistake of thinking you can create an iconic vision of New York someplace else.
-- Cast authentic faces, not big stars: Okay, sounds like an expensive show so far. The good news is that Fellowes has a huge following, and the show is concept driven. Outside a pivotal star or two, pull together a great list of actors from New York's huge acting pool that actually fit the part -- in comportment, body shape or profile. Handsome men then didn't look like Taylor Lautner. If you're casting for stunning beauties, hold up a picture of Lillian Russell (who arrived on the New York scene in 1885), not Kristen Stewart. Above: Ms. Russell in 1885