Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Never Too Much of a Good Thing?

That’s a question well worth asking, as news spreads that Julian Fellowes--the British screenwriter behind the phenomenally successful period drama Downton Abbey, as well as this year’s comparatively disappointing Titanic miniseries--has signed on to produce another historical serial, this one for U.S. network NBC. As The New York Times reports:
In its release, NBC described the series, which will be called “The Gilded Age,” as an “epic tale of the princes of the American Renaissance, and the vast fortunes they made--and spent--in late 19th century New York.”

Mr. Fellowes said in a statement, “This was a vivid time with dizzying, brilliant ascents and calamitous falls, of record-breaking ostentation and savage rivalry; a time when money was king.”
America’s Gilded Age (roughly 1877 to 1893), with its economic and industrial development booms, and its widening divisions between the wealthiest citizens (who built extravagant mansions as proof of their prosperity) and its poorest ones, might serve well as a setting for Fellowes’ brand of storytelling.

But does it really fall to me to remind NBC honchos that trying to create a Yankee knock-off of a well-loved UK historical drama can be disastrous? Just look back at the example of Beacon Hill, the expensive CBS-TV series that debuted with considerable fanfare on August 25, 1975 ... and disappeared from the airwaves on November 4 of that same year, after just 13 episodes.

TV Guide’s September 6, 1975, spread on Beacon Hill, which includes a preview of Gabe Kaplan’s Welcome Back, Kotter, an ABC-TV sitcom that also premiered that fall. (Click for an enlargement.)

Beacon Hill was the U.S. answer to Upstairs, Downstairs,” recalls Steve Phillips in his excellent tribute Web site to the latter series. “It featured the exploits of a well-to-do Catholic family living in Boston in the twenties (the first episode started a few hours after Prohibition in 1920).” In its 1975 Fall Preview edition, TV Guide offered this synopsis of Beacon Hill’s concept:
The series has two layers--rich family on top, servants beneath. This is a Boston family, the Lassiters--Ben, a powerful industrialist and political boss, and his wife, children and grandchildren. Below stairs, we find Mr. and Mrs. Hacker running the household staff of Irish immigrants--most prominently Brian Mallory, a brash laddie who is determined to rise in the world in a hurry, just as Ben Lassiter did a generation earlier.
Although the program undoubtedly benefited from the participation of cast members such as Stephen Elliott, Nancy Marchand, Edward Herrmann, Linda Purl, and Beatrice Straight, negative reviews of Beacon Hill were quick to come in.

This hour-long show was probably hobbled by the fact that it was slotted on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. against ABC’s waning but still popular Marcus Welby, M.D. (as well as NBC’s new cop drama Joe Forrester). And it followed on the heels of CBS’ new con man-detective series, Switch, which probably didn’t spill much of its audience over to the very different Beacon Hill. But Phillips opines that the show suffered for additional reasons, as well. “Since the series has never been made available to the public in modern times,” he writes, “it’s difficult nowadays to analyze where the problem was. Rather than the acting or directing, the finger mainly seems to point at the quality of the writing--this made many of the characters seem like rather bad stereotypes and some of the dialogue was hackneyed. To sort out the writing problems, John Hawkesworth, the producer of Upstairs, Downstairs, was called over from Britain. Sadly, even his great talents couldn’t rescue things and CBS cancelled Beacon Hill mid-season, despite the fairly promising ratings.”

It is certainly a shame that Beacon Hill has not yet made it to DVD; I don’t remember watching the show originally, but I would be pleased to look at it now as a curiosity of TV history.

Let’s hope that Julian Fellowes and NBC can make a better showing with Gilded Age than CBS did with Beacon Hill. It’s interesting to note that Fellowes is hedging his bets on the success of his new venture; as the Times piece mentioned above notes, he will also be producing a fourth season of Downton Abbey.

Meanwhile, Downton’s third season is set to premiere in the States on Sunday, January 6, under PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Classic umbrella. I, for one, will be watching.

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