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Know Your Early-1880s Drama: ‘1883’ vs. ‘The Gilded Age’

TV is suddenly a hotbed of late-19th-century content. Let us help you figure out which period piece is best for you.

HBO/Paramount+/Ringer illustration

In the sixth episode of 1883, a caravan of cattle, cowboys, and immigrants making its way from Texas to Oregon stops at a trading post near the Red River. One of the Pinkerton agents who’s ostensibly keeping the caravan safe, a Civil War vet named Thomas who was enslaved as a child, eyes a handheld mirror from France as a gift for a newly widowed woman who is hoping that Thomas will be her second husband. The silver, filigreed ornament, sold by some desperate traveler in need of more useful supplies, looks out of place on the frontier. “[The] further away you get from concrete, the more worthless those pretty things become,” the trader tells Thomas. Angling for a discount, the former soldier says, “Ain’t no damn concrete around here.”

It’s true: There’s no concrete in sight on Paramount+ on Sundays, when 1883 airs. For paved sidewalks and luxury items that won’t shortly be shattered by a passing tornado (RIP, fancy French mirror), you’ll want to watch HBO on Mondays, when new episodes of The Gilded Age drop. The Gilded Age’s story starts in 1882, mere months before 1883’s events begin in the spring of—wouldn’t you know it—1883. Which means that the future founders of Yellowstone’s Dutton ranch are working their way to Montana on 1883 at roughly the same time as the recently orphaned Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) is acclimating to life with her aunts in the upper crust of NYC society on The Gilded Age. For anyone who watches both series, this TV tag team of early-1880s drama, delivered in deeply dissimilar styles on back-to-back days, offers a disorienting crash course in the same sliver of American history. As my colleague Katie Baker puts it, “My husband had to tell me to stop saying, ‘This is happening at the same time as 1883’ while watching The Gilded Age and ‘This is happening at the same time as The Gilded Age’ while watching 1883.”

1883 and The Gilded Age share some similarities other than big budgets and settings midway between the Panic of 1873 and the Panic of 1893 (and just prior to the Panic of 1884; panicking was popular in the late 19th century). Both are brand-name multi-hyphenates’ follow-ups (and temporal preludes to) their first TV hits. 1883, created and written by Taylor Sheridan, is a prequel to Yellowstone; The Gilded Age, created and cowritten by Julian Fellowes, is technically a prequel to Downton Abbey, in that it too takes place on planet Earth, a few decades before Downton. (The series started life as a more explicit prequel, and a crossover of sorts is still a possibility.) Each show features a young female protagonist who leaves home in hopes of finding freedom and fortune, a prominent Black character who reminds the non-Black characters about segregation, and a character who blows their own brains out after suffering a severe loss. Each boasts of some commitment to historical accuracy and explores some similar themes. Whichever one you watch, you’re certain to encounter horses, corsets, and characters who hit the “h” in “wh” words harder than Stewie from Family Guy saying “Wil Wheaton.”

In other respects, the two 1880-something series are nearly nothing alike. 1883 took about seven months to develop and produce; The Gilded Age took 12 years. The former is an alternately upbeat and brutal Western populated by haunted, hard-bitten protectors, unscrupulous robbers, and suffering settlers; the latter, like Downton, is an upstairs-downstairs soap fest full of eligible socialites, scheming lady’s maids, and sharp-tongued dowagers. Though both were shot on location, the locations in question couldn’t be more distinct: 1883, the product of a suitably grueling, five-month, real-world trek from sweltering Texas to frigid Montana, showcases the wide-open spaces of the Great Plains and other Western wildernesses, while The Gilded Age lets us plebs past the gates of the period-appropriate great estates of Newport and exurban New York.

Not since Godless has prestige TV trained its spotlight on the decade preceding the better-branded 1890s, and like the double-barrel shotgun that Faith Hill’s Margaret Dutton uses to waste a would-be horse thief in the most recent episode of 1883, this double dose of 1880s-otica could overwhelm unsuspecting spectators. You don’t want to be on the business end of the wrong drama with actual hour-long run times, so in the spirit of my guide to differentiating Netflix’s Kingdom and The Last Kingdom, I give you a guide to choosing the right TV trip to 1882/3.

How much death do you want?

This is the 1880s we’re talking about; the average life expectancy in the U.S. was about 40 years, so you’ll see some death either way. (Granted, infant mortality drove down that figure, but as the first two episodes of 1883 suggested, smallpox and dysentery didn’t help.) However, only one of these series will introduce you to almost every way in which 19th-century people perished. Unsurprisingly, it’s not the one by the baron who made Downton.

“It is hell, and there are demons everywhere,” protagonist and narrator Elsa (Isabel May) intones in the first few minutes of 1883’s premiere, reflecting on life west of the Mississippi. Six episodes later, she upgrades her review of the frontier to heaven and hell coexisting “right beside each other,” but by then, hell has made the more persuasive case. “I don’t think we can baby ’em anymore,” Sam Elliott’s Shea Brennan says in Episode 7. “They’re gonna have to get tough or die.” By that point, a great many of them have already died, often from maladies familiar to anyone who was weaned on The Oregon Trail. The multitude of menaces endured by the wagon train includes but is not limited to: outbreaks of smallpox; getting crushed under wagon wheels; drowning in rivers; contracting cholera after drinking river water; getting gunned down by rustlers or Native Americans; wandering into the path of a rampaging twister; and getting bitten by a rattlesnake while going no. 2. (Creative rattlesnake killings are a Sheridan calling card.)

That’s not counting multiple characters’ battlefield flashbacks to Civil War slaughters. And that’s before the plodding, perpetually endangered expedition gets far north enough for freezing and starvation to take their tolls. French mirror notwithstanding, the Belle Époque this is not. When Elsa says “Death is everywhere” (pronounced everyhwurr) twice within the first six episodes, she isn’t being melodramatic. Well, she is being melodramatic—after all, she’s 17, and if she weren’t busy riding, flirting, and occasionally killing or coming close to being killed, she’d probably be committing these deep thoughts to her diary—but she’s not exaggerating the threat.

That’s not to say that life in The Gilded Age’s version of Manhattan high society is always easy. Aside from the suicide on Monday’s episode, the most violent events thus far consist of a cook getting knocked down by a bookie and Marian having her purse snatched on a train platform. Yet less criminal crises abound. Suitors are deemed unsuitable; prestigious guests decline dinner invitations; stock market speculation backfires; a beloved dog gets loose from its leash; and unlucky souls are sometimes forced to visit Brooklyn. The hazards of this ecosystem come from cutthroat businessmen, nouveau riche social climbers, and old-money snobs with powerful friends, not the natural environment; New Yorkers cross rivers on bridges and ferries instead of ropes tenuously strung between banks. And while it may not be as bad as a rattlesnake bite on the butt, bystanders in The Gilded Age are liable to weather one of the withering put-downs delivered by Christine Baranski’s Aunt Agnes, who picks up Maggie Smith’s mantle as Fellowes’s hidebound dispenser of caustic commentary. (Like John Dutton on Yellowstone, she’s the opposite of progress.)

Some of The Gilded Age’s leads have had hardships in their pasts, but these days, they break down over much smaller matters. As Agnes says to her teary-eyed sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon), “You survived a Civil War, yet you collapse because a lapdog is missing.” The Gilded Age’s dangers are buried beneath the veneer of decorum that gave the era its sobriquet. As Elsa says on 1883, “The dirty hand of man can go unnoticed in the city, because his dirty hand made the city.”

Speaking of dirty hands: In the early 1880s, even surgeons had only recently gotten hip to handwashing, and the scarcity of soap on 1883 probably contributes to the prevalence of contagion. On top of that, the first deodorant wasn’t trademarked until 1888, so both show’s characters must stink. The Gilded Age’s ensemble rinses off more often and can cover their funk in perfume between baths, but there’s no indoor plumbing in the great outdoors, so 1883’s characters bathe about as rarely as the Pogues on Outer Banks. The immigrants in the caravan were forbidden to swim in the old country, so the only time they’re washed is when they’re drowning. Most of the characters who can swim are short on godliness, so maybe it figures that they’d lack cleanliness too.

What about other adult content?

Kids grow up fast on the frontier. Elsa loses her virginity and commits her first murder in the same episode, and it’s hard to say which milestone upsets her parents more. The corollary to death being everyhwurr on 1883’s misbegotten cattle drive is that bonds can be broken and created quickly. In one episode, Elsa mourns the late fiancé she’d met mere weeks before and wonders whether she can go on without him. Days later, she’s locking lips with a handsome Native American widower and warrior in a mid-tornado tryst. Elsa and any other recent widows may be the only single women within a hundred miles of the caravan, so the dating scene is limited, and there’s no time to waste in coupling up when a rattlesnake could be lurking in the next latrine. Nor is there much mystery about the birds and the bees: “You’ve seen enough farm animals to know how babies are made, Elsa,” says Margaret in what passes for a sex talk on 1883.

That’s much more carnal knowledge than Marian has: On The Gilded Age, privileged and sheltered young ladies know next to nothing of sex and are forbidden to find out more. While Elsa roams the plains and sleeps under the stars with her cowboy beau, Marian can’t leave her home without a chaperone, and the next-door neighbors’ daughter Gladys is under virtual house arrest until her ambitious mother Bertha (Carrie Coon) makes a match that meets her needs. In the world of The Gilded Age, bearing a child out of wedlock is grounds for being banished from polite society, no matter how hefty one’s bank account. Perhaps that’s why marriage proposals come quickly on both shows.

Normally, one would expect the HBO series to be the one that went heavy on violence, sex, and Deadwood-caliber cursing, but The Gilded Age’s chaste sex scenes and delicate language have the hallmarks of the NBC series it was once intended to be. The leading ladies and men of 1883, meanwhile, drop F-bombs even when they’re objecting to others’ polite language: As Margaret tells the caravan’s cook, “You use that word in front of my child again, I’m gonna stab you with this fucking fork.”

What sort of scenery do you seek?

Presumably, few expenses were spared on either of these series, but 1883 actually looks like it cost a ton. The prequel’s Lonesome Dove meets The Last of the Mohicans” vibe lends itself to natural splendor, and its itinerant structure keeps the scenery from growing stale. The makers of The Gilded Age must have spent a pretty penny to capture the old New York of Time and Again, but more of it seems staged. There’s something to be said for the HBO show’s ornate interiors and sumptuous wardrobes—it’s essentially MTV Cribs for the late 19th century—but The Gilded Age feels confining after the open air of 1883. It’s more striking to see the settlers’ furniture strewn across the landscape after Brennan orders them to drop their wagons’ weight than it is to admire The Gilded Age’s even fancier furniture in its orderly natural habitat.

Do you have a head for business?

1883’s stakes are as simple as they are existential: Our heroes have to get from Point A to a distant Point B without losing their lives and possessions. They aren’t aspiring to outearn the Astors or commission mansions; they’re just trying to not be destitute or dead. The obstacles in their path are physical and so are the solutions.

The Gilded Age’s George Russell (Morgan Spector) is a self-made millionaire who wants for nothing. He’s a fictionalized version of the robber barons who built the railroads that would soon make the Oregon Trail less trafficked. His goals are more abstract than the Duttons’: He aims to be even more mega-wealthy than he already is, to punish anyone who underestimates him, and to enable his wife’s monomaniacal campaign to rule New York’s elite social circle. Both the Duttons and the Russells win with willpower, but they don’t express it the same way. If you want old-fashioned gunfights, 1883 is your speed. If you prefer wars waged with balance sheets, table settings, and sidelong glances, go with The Gilded Age.

Are you partial to Nashville, Hollywood, or Broadway?

1883 stars two of the most successful country music artists ever, and neither one has sung so much as a lullaby on the show. Both Hill and Tim McGraw (as James Dutton) are completely convincing actors, but they and the rest of the strong cast are sporadically upstaged by cameos from Hill, McGraw, and Sheridan’s high-profile friends: Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, and Billy Bob Thornton have already donned old-timey outfits for selected scenes, and the movie-star cavalcade could continue. The Gilded Age’s cast features stars of stage as much as screen, including Audra McDonald, Kelli O’Hara and, as of the fifth episode, Nathan Lane as one of the two dramas’ many historical figures—in Lane’s case, a hail Fellowes well met named Ward McAllister. 1883’s call sheet owns the edge in CMAs and Oscar noms, but The Gilded Age has a huge lead in Tonys.

Do you like to look at horsies?

You’re in luck, because both shows have them. But The Gilded Age’s mounts are seen only when they’re nearly running down dogs in the street, ferrying men to the club and women to charity functions, or powering the Brookses’ carriage rides around the park. On 1883, livestock are life. About 20 percent of the non-backdoor-pilot parts of Yellowstone Season 4 featured montages of horses spinning in circles and making sliding stops, and although the fine animals of 1883 have their hooves full with activities other than cowboy dressage, the spinoff won’t disappoint anyone who watches Sheridan shows because the man never met a horse he couldn’t cast.

Fellowes, who’s brainstorming ideas for a potential second season, recently said, “The Gilded Age has a kind of Wild West twang to it that I hope appeals to audiences everywhere.” 1883, whose Wild West accents run much deeper than a twang, drafted off Yellowstone to draw a giant audience for its opening episode, easily exceeding The Gilded Age’s more muted (though still respectable) showing on Mondays. Although the two series present dramatically different depictions of empire-building, their pulpy approaches prove complementary for anyone with an appetite for period drama.

Taken in tandem, 1883’s vision of a fight for vast, undeveloped lands and The Gilded Age’s portrayal of a struggle over a small, long-since-“civilized” island foster an appreciation for both the freedoms of the frontier and the conveniences of the concrete jungle, as well as some sense of how the era’s sweeping change manifested itself in social upheaval across the continent. Neither series has officially been renewed, though it would be an upset if either ended after a single season. 1883’s 10-episode slate concludes on February 27, and The Gilded Age’s 10th and final installment will air on March 28. Come April, I’ll miss my weekly trips to the early 1880s, but by then it’ll be about time to explore a new era—namely, Downton Abbey: A New Era.