Hot off the success of UK costume dramas, ABC has decided to throw its hat into the ring with Gilded Lilys, a…wait for it…Shonda Rhimes creation set in New York City in 1895. The question is whether the popularity of the costume drama will translate to the United States effectively when it’s produced in-house, or whether the series will be a complete flop.
As often happens when networks attempt to ride trends, there’s a high risk of sucking the life right out of the concept and leaving audiences cold, especially since Rhimes is juggling a lot of shows at the moment and they can’t all receive her focus and attention. Given that this is new territory for her, this could potentially be an expensive disaster for the network.
We all know what happens when US networks attempt to remake UK shows; it’s usually an utter mess, to the point that one longs to put a paper bag over the head of the network to spare it the embarrassment of being seen in public alongside its creation. This is possibly one step worse, an attempt to capitalise on a meme that the network doesn’t fully understand, and can’t, because the US and the UK are two very different places with different audiences, histories, and creative approaches.
The story revolves around the lives of the Lilys, New York aristocracy with considerable wealth and power brought low by a family scandal that changed their fortunes. They open New York’s first luxury hotel, and the show is off to the races as the characters tangle with secrets, rivalries, and class collisions. Given that Shonda Rhimes is behind it, it’s safe to bet on extreme sudsiness, but that’s part of the fun; audiences do so love to see the rich behaving badly.
It’s intriguing to see US television exploring class, but also telling that producers and creators feel more comfortable examining class in the context of the past, rather than in the present. With a few notable exceptions, US television in contemporary settings doesn’t delve very far into class issues; there is a sense that creators want to retain the myth that this is a classless society. While UK costume dramas are noted and beloved for their unstinting analysis and presentation of class, there are also a lot of shows set in the modern era with equally astute, and much more relevant, explorations of class issues.
For UK creators, it’s about more than just putting people in lovely frocks and waltzing them around gilded ballrooms. There’s a genuine interest in looking at class stratification, the history of the class system, and the radical shifts that permanently altered British society and continue to shape it today. Even on Doctor Who, class is integral, and important.
Perhaps Gilded Lilys is a baby step, but keep in mind that it’s coming from the same network that brought viewers Secret Millionaire, so any hopes of a keen class analysis will probably be dashed at the start. US networks seem to have picked up on the idea that viewers like costume dramas, and assume this liking stems from enjoying a mixture of fabulous frocks, lavish sets, and soap-level drama. However, it’s more than that; there’s a unique twist to the British costume drama that simply isn’t replicable with shows set in the US.
US and British class issues, then and now, are very different animals, and they can’t be easily ported across the pond for viewing pleasure. Gilded Lilys might be a fascinating look into New York at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, with all the US-specific issues that were pressing for many people at the time. Or it might be a disastrous attempt at pretending that it’s possible to recreate Downton Abbey in the Big Apple.
There’s tremendous potential and I will definitely be tuning in for the premiere, but I don’t have high hopes. Class issues aside, the show may also suffer from the same problem many other US series are currently struggling with: loose and sloppy timelines. Shows like Downton Abbey are so deligthful in part because they are crisp, succinct, and tight. Limited by the miniseries model, creators have to plot things out carefully and say what they want to say within a very specific framework, which keeps viewers gripped through to the end. It’s hard to lose focus when you’ve only got a handful of episodes in a season, and when creators have to make every one count.
When a season is 13 or 23 episodes long, creators tend to start wandering, and that’s where Gilded Lilys may trip and fall. On cable, where seasons are shorter and there’s more demand to tighten up, it could be an unexpected hit, like Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, both of which have taken a uniquely US approach to the costume drama that celebrates the nation’s history and culture rather than trying to suppress it. On a network, it seems highly likely that it won’t have the drive, or the pull, to make it through a single season.
Rhimes might have done better pitching this to a cable network, unless ABC is exploring new ground. But I will wish her the best of luck with the show, because I do rather enjoy nice frocks.