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.
None of this can depicted cheaply. My only solid gripe about BBC America’s ‘Copper’ was its obviously low budget comparative to the scope they were intending to capture. If you’re going to call something ‘The Gilded Age’, the world needs to feel opulent. (Even if the phrase, as coined by Mark Twain, was meant to evoke high society without depth.)
— 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
— Consider changing the title: I like ‘The Gilded Age’ but perhaps it’s a little too on-the-nose. And there’s already a satirical classic with that title. (Although that didn’t stop ‘Nashville‘.) One of the pleasures of ‘Downton Abbey’ is that it’s rooted to an actual place, providing gravity to an ever-centrifugal drama. Perhaps find the same in New York. (This saves money too.) ‘Fifth Avenue’? ‘Madison Square’? The Villard Houses were built in 1884. Wouldn’t that be a perfect setting? I mean, if it’s good enough for Gossip Girl….
Too bad a most perfect title ‘The 400’ — the name of Mrs. Astor‘s high society social circle — conjures up images of a non-existent sequel to ‘300‘ full of sweaty gladiators. And if you decide to chuck the high society thing and go all gritty, may I suggest ‘The Tenderloin‘?
— Watch ‘Boardwalk Empire’: The world of Fellowes’ new show is going to have to interact with the real world even more than ‘Downton Abbey’ does. And while Martin Scorsese’s HBO drama about 1920s Atlantic City feels narratively distant — sometimes it’s unforgivably boring — it does incorporate historical figures into its storyline surprisingly well. It’s not an easy thing to do, making melodramatic historical figures into flesh-and-blood characters, but that’s been one of Boardwalk’s more successful accomplishments.
— The temptation of the Astors vs. the Vanderbilts: You can’t touch upper crust Manhattan of the 1880s without discussing the old school Astors and the new money Vanderbilts, whose families collided in the narrow New York social sphere of the era. But it may be more prudent to watch this clash of style from an adjacent family, either real or fictional.
— The potential of wacky supporting characters: Now I’m just being a total New York geek here, but in the periphery of such a show, one could find an excellent assortment of extraordinary oddballs. The 1880s had no shortage. Perpetual mayoral candidate Henry George, industrialist Peter Cooper and preacher Henry Ward Beecher in their final years, faded icon of scandal Victoria Woodhull, cigar-chewing Fifth Avenue Hotel power player Roscoe Conkling and the young, genius gadabout Stanford White.
— And don’t just stay in New York: There’s Saratoga! Newport! Tuxedo Park! Manhattan Beach! Long Island’s Gold Coast!
All right, so maybe I’ve just budgeted the show out of existence. Anyway, here’s hoping for a drama as heartfelt and as addictive as ‘Downton Abbey’.