‘The Gilded Age’ brings ‘Downton’ decadence to the Big Apple

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HBO Max’s highly-anticipated historical drama, “The Gilded Age,” brings period-piece master of the small screen and big screen, Julian Fellowes, across the pond to tell a distinctly American tale with the same glamor of his royalty-adjacent plotlines. Fellowes, best known for writing acclaimed series like “Downton Abbey” and “Belgravia,” assembled a star-studded cast whose gripping characters intermingle in the turbulent years of the late 19th century. Having premiered on Jan. 24, 2022, the series is now four episodes in, and I can say with complete confidence that it is sure to impress. 

“The Gilded Age” follows warring families and factions in New York’s elite society in the decades following the Civil War. “Old money” families whose roots trace back to the Mayflower — think the Astors and Roosevelts — are threatened by “new money” families  — like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers — who make millions off of new industries and factories in the Second Industrial Revolution. Sound boring? It’s not, or at least not in the way it’s presented. 

Audiences enter this world through the eyes of Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), a young Pennsylvania farmer’s daughter whose father died, who moves to New York to live with her Aunt Agnes (Christine Baranski) and Aunt Ada (Cynthia Nixon), both of whom are members of the “old money” class. Across the street, in a much more lavish palace than the Van Rhijn brownstone, railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) move in and worm their way into the most exclusive New York City circles. Along the way, we meet the downstairs staff of both households, whose lives are just as complex as those of their upstairs counterparts, as well as several real-life figures who interact with the fictional personas we follow. 

The road to “The Gilded Age” was certainly a long one, as talks of “an American ‘Downton Abbey’” began more than 10 years ago. Fans of the sweeping British drama that chronicles the story of the aristocratic Crawley family may be upset to learn that the original intention for this series was to feature the American-born Lady Grantham’s family in New York and Newport, Rhode Island, before her move across the Atlantic. The series was originally greenlit by NBC, yet changed hands to HBO with a new plotline and a new set of characters. 

I hesitate to make so many references to “Downton Abbey” when discussing “The Gilded Age,” but, the stories, eras, characters and cinematic styles are so similar that it is impossible not to. The key difference between them, however, is the scope of the story-telling. While “Downton Abbey” is limited to the manor and the surrounding estate, “The Gilded Age” visits all parts of the island of Manhattan, meeting several families from different backgrounds and ethnicities. 

What the show perhaps lacks is the soapiness and scandal of the usual 21st century period piece. “Downton Abbey” has always been the more modest, tasteful drama, compared to the steamier, sexier likes of “Bridgerton” and company. While “The Gilded Age” is not devoid of scandal, I certainly hope Fellowes can do better than a closeted gay character and a party that nobody attends. However, the season has barely begun, so I’d hardly call that a major fault just yet. 

While I have nothing but good things to say about the series, it should be discussed that “The Gilded Age” is yet another drama about rich White people and their problems — something television is far from lacking. So, do we really need “The Gilded Age?” In a certain sense, “The Gilded Age” even matches HBO Max’s other drama, “Succession,” but with the cast in corsets instead of Gucci. 

The key redeeming quality to this show, however, is the character of Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), the third main plot the series follows. Scott, a young Black writer meets Marian on her journey to New York and later finds work as Agnes’ secretary. Though she lives in the Van Rhijn’s servant quarters, she is actually the heiress of a wealthy family of New York’s Black elite in Brooklyn who has more money than her employer. While “Bridgerton,” rewrites the narrative to include people of color in the upper echelons of society, “The Gilded Age” seeks to tell the story of those who were already there who have yet to have their day on the silver screen. The attention to detail and the historical research that has taken place is commendable. 

At the end of the day, this series is definitely one for all fans of historical dramas. Despite any faults, it is escapism cinema at its finest, drawing you into a beautiful world of wealth and wonder, with a phenomenal cast who truly put their all into their complex characters. With such a sweeping ensemble series, one can only imagine what is next in store for any one of the dozens of on-screen personas, but you can bet I’ll be first to tune in when it continues. 

Rating: 4/5 stars 

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