Is a Downton Abbey crossover possible for Julian Fellowes’s Gilded Age?

The Gilded Age
The Gilded Age /

The Gilded Age debuted on HBO Sunday night and the reaction hasn’t been quite the rapture with which Downton Abbey was greeted. Some critics outright panned the new series—set in the 1880s of New York and centering around the familiar subject matter of “new money” vs. “old money”—while others were more kind. It’s Upstairs Downstairs for America and its rather dull story structure wants us rooting for the upstart Russells, George, and Bertha (Morgan Specter and Carrie Coon), who represent upward mobility. But I have to say that by the time Bertha was crying in her bed after the pilot, promising that they’ll all pay for snubbing her party, I just didn’t quite buy it, at least not yet.

The side plot of Peggy (Denee Benton) trying to break through as a black female writer at the turn of the century America shows great promise (and love the casting of Broadway alum Audra Mcdonald as her mom), but it doesn’t seem to be enough to make up for other characters who are frankly less interesting including much of the interchangeable Downstairs cast. (Remember how memorable Brendan Coyle’s Bates and Jim Carter’s Mr. Carson were? Not to mention Phyllis Logan’s Mrs. Hughs and scheming Raquel Cassidy’s Baxter!) (Except for perhaps Michael Cerveris’s Watson and Kelly Curran’s flirtatious maid. Or Turner: expect trouble from that one.).

Penniless Marian (Louisa Jacobson)—who befriends Peggy and introduces her to her old money aunts—one of whom employs her for her exceptional penmanship—doesn’t make much of an impression in the first episode. I wasn’t sure if Christine Baranski (Agnes Van Rijn) and Cynthia Nixon (Ada Brook) would be capable of carrying the series, but Nixon’s benevolent aunt has a sweet presence (and is far more likable than her Miranda on the Sex and the City reboot, And Just Like That), while Baranski is no Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith)—no one is—she does get in the few humorous lines there are.

It’s not that we’re expecting Julian Fellowes to recreate Downton magic once more. His series Belgravia on EPIX, set just three decades before The Gilded Age, was marvelous without having to duplicate the historical show that made him a household name. But it takes place in London, a locale Baron Fellowes knows very well. Nuveau riche in America? Not so much. And it’s not like the gilded age can’t be depicted for dramatic purposes. Read any Edith Wharton novel or check out Martin Scorcese’s The Age of Innocence film (based on a Wharton novel of course) to see how this world can be masterfully depicted.

The Gilded Age has been a long time in the making—since 2012—and considering the box office success of the first Downton Abbey movie (with a second one on the way, albeit delayed this year), the PBS series is still very much in the cultural lexicon. And fans would love to see The Gilded Age tie in the original beloved series. Let’s not forget that Downton’s Cora (Levinson) Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) comes from just such a world, having transplanted to London in 1888, her first social season. Set about 30 years before the start of Downton Abbey, fans have shown an even keener interest to explore the Dowager Countess’s younger storyline.

The British series began with the news of the sinking of the HMS Titanic in 1912, where several members of New York’s elite went down with the ship, including John Jacob Astor IV, the great-great-grandson of John Jacob, who originally made the fortune that his relatives have now established as old money by the time Gilded Age has come around. We met young Carrie Astor (Amy Forsyth), born in 1881, and Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy, another Broadway alum! There are so many in the series) in the first episode. Mrs. Astor is the social arbiter who originally coined “the four hundred” who stood for New York’s social elite.

In addition to the Titanic and the Astors, we can hold out hope for the main protagonists of the Gilded Age, the Russells, but here, I’m not so sure. There are also Russells referenced in season two of Downton Abbey as former owners of Haxby Park. I’m not sure if these are the same Russells of New York, since the Russells had been living near Downton for centuries. It’s also doubtful that they have old money relations in England since the Russells we meet in the Gilded Age are very much the first of their kind within their family relations, it would seem.

"“[A crossover is] not in the thinking at all,” said Downton’s and The Gilded Age’s executive producer, Gareth Neame, according to TVLine. “It’s a separate universe, but they’re both fictions set in the 1880s. Downton Abbey, in its own fiction, was definitely there. A younger version of the Maggie Smith character would be living there, I guess. But it’s not really planned.”"

Fans will already be treated to a storyline that explores a scandalous past of the Dowager Countess’s in the new Downton Abbey movie, A New Era, which is certain to be extremely fun. If you’re like me, I couldn’t get enough of my favorite character from the series and would love to see a younger Violet Crawley.

Although Naeme said the possibility of intertwining both worlds is “not currently on the slate,” he joked about the concept. He said that it “will only take a decade or so for HBO or Universal to say, ‘Great, let’s do a Gilded meets Downton mashup!’”

It would be thrilling to glimpse a newly cast young Violet who might just be way less stuffy than her beloved Downton incarnation, but I’m guessing just as saucy. Wouldn’t it be fun to see her interact with Baranski’s snobby Van Rijn?

What did you think of the debut of The Gilded Age? Are you excited to see more of the mysterious character, Sylvia Chamberlain, played by Jean Tripplehorn? I know I am.

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The Gilded Age airs on HBO and HBO MAX Mondays at 9 p.m. ET.