NBC will try to strike ratings gold with a Gilded Age drama to be created by Julian Fellowes, the award-winning producer/creator of “Downton Abbey.”
In one of the more intriguing development deals to come down the pike in quite a while, NBC announced Tuesday that it has hired the British-born Fellowes, 63, to write and produce a series set in the period from roughly the 1870s to the 1890s that became known as the Gilded Age.
The series will be titled simply “The Gilded Age,” said NBC, which gave no timetable for its development, including when the series would premiere or who might be in it.
NBC did, however, articulate its hope that the series will do for NBC what “Downton Abbey” has done for PBS. The soap opera-ish, British-made “Downton Abbey,” about a wealthy English family and their many servants during and after World War I, has become a surprise hit for PBS stations in the U.S.
And NBC hopes this “Gilded Age” series will have the same kind of success. In its announcement, the network vowed that “The Gilded Age” will be “a sweeping epic in the style of ‘Downton Abbey’.” Continuing the “epic” theme, NBC described the new series as “an epic tale of the princes of the American Renaissance, and the vast fortunes they made — and spent — in late nineteenth-century New York.”
“This was a vivid time,” said Fellowes in a prepared statement, “with dizzying, brilliant ascents and calamitous falls, of record-breaking ostentation and savage rivalry; a time when money was king.”
Our take: Why does this deal intrigue us so much? Because of the difficulties that are sure to be involved in producing this thing. Sure, NBC is probably being sincere when it says it wants Fellowes to produce a rich, glossy, costume-y series that will look and feel like “Downton Abbey,” and even more importantly, like “Downton,” will become a show that people will talk about. But costume dramas like this are not exactly NBC’s stock-in-trade. As anyone can see who watches “Downton Abbey” or any other period piece on TV (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” set in the 1920s, comes to mind), it’s the accumulation of details — the more accurate the better — that make these things work. Period clothing, architecture, furnishings — these things all cost money, more than NBC is accustomed to spending on a scripted show.
Moreover, NBC is not PBS. NBC needs younger viewers, not the 60-plus audience who watches public television. How to make a “Downton”-type series that appeals to younger demos is possibly the biggest challenge of all facing NBC and its new creator/producer.