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HBO's The Gilded Age Is an Entertaining Trifle of a Series

Julian Fellowes takes the ‘if it aint broke’ route in his starry new Downton Abbey follow-up.
  • Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski star in The Gilded Age. (Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)
    Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski star in The Gilded Age. (Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)

    When it was announced that HBO had given the green light to The Gilded Age, a period drama set in New York City in the late 19th century conceived and written by Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes, it was easy to assume that we'd be getting an American Downton Abbey. This was a simplistic assumption, of course. Not all costume dramas are the same, after all. The fact that Downton Abbey was an incredibly successful undertaking for Fellowes, one that happened to be incredibly popular with American audiences, didn't mean that any costume drama he'd be producing for HBO would simply be a gloss on his most successful show. They don't even take place in the same century, for Pete's sake!

    Still, having now watched the first five screened-for-critics episodes of the new series, which premieres on HBO tonight with a star-studded cast that includes Christine Baranski, Carrie Coon and Cynthia Nixon, one thing has become clear: The Gilded Age pretty much is exactly the American Downton Abbey. And if that's what you're looking for, you're probably going to have a very good time.

    None of which is to say that The Gilded Age is great television. It is incredibly watchable television, and on some level, the distinction between the two ceases to matter. It brings to mind the anecdotes we'd hear during Downton Abbey's initial run where British people were surprised that Americans viewed the show in such exalted terms since they saw it more as trashy fun than prestige television. Maybe it was the accents, the costumes, the traditions, or perhaps it was simply that American audiences had enough distance that what they were watching felt exotic and refined. The Gilded Age, while resplendent in its own trappings of wealth and manners and social standing, has less distance from domestic audiences, and there's every chance that Americans seeing reflections of our own past in this show will be less forgiving of its prestige posturings.

    It's 1882 in New York City when the series begins, after the Civil War but before automobiles, high rises and the Columbus Circle Whole Foods besmirched the fair island of Manhattan. Uptown society is awash with wealthy families who have been established since before the Revolution, but railroads bring new-money interlopers into the midst of old-money traditionalists like Agnes van Rhijn (Baranski), whose life is being invaded by Bertha Russell (Coon), wife of robber baron George Russell (Morgan Spector). The Russells have spent three years building a massive mansion on the corner of 5th and 61st, and while their wealth far exceeds Agnes's (and indeed many of their old-money neighbors), Bertha is on the outside looking in at a rigid social structure that does not admit new members easily. (Among the show's truly mind-boggling cast of theater veterans, the great Donna Murphy has a recurring role as Caroline Astor, the queen of New York society.)

    Bertha's determination to delicately, lavishly bulldoze her way into the upper echelons of Old New York is played in a few different, but sometimes competing tenors. There's a kind of crass comedy in watching her throw objects across the room in anger when she finds out she won't be hosting a charity benefit; given the right arch tone, watching an absurdly wealthy women try to get one over on other absurdly wealthy women can be a lot of fun. And for much of The Gilded Age it is. But Fellowes stumbles when he tries to graft an "inevitable march of progress" narrative onto the story, as if the audience is meant to find it inspirational that a railroad magnate's wife could ultimately find herself on equal footing with the Upper East Side doyennes of the 1880s.

    This get further muddled as Fellowes parallels Bertha's story with that of Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a young Black woman who aspires to be a writer and who takes a job as Agnes's secretary when she returns to New York after a time in Pennsylvania that appears to be full of secrets. Peggy's parents (including mom Audra McDonald, hooray) have money, but she's estranged from them, and money or not she's still a Black woman in 1882 and subject to accusatory glares from everyone from the Bloomingdales clerks to Agnes's own house staff. To Fellowes, Bertha's and Peggy's stories, along with several others in the sprawling ensemble of the show, are all part of the locomotive of modernity chugging across the nation, a pill that's hard to swallow when delivered in the sometimes solemn tones the show takes.

    This was a track Fellowes liked to take on Downton Abbey as well, which checked in on English life in a country manor at a time when old ways were falling away and everything from feminism to class mobility was dramatized amid the dinner parties and Maggie Smith quips, so it's no surprise that it turns up again on The Gilded Age, especially considering how much of the new show recalls elements of the old one. While George and Bertha Russell make for a far less stuffy gloss on Lord and Lady Grantham, their loving and loyal marriages dovetail from a certain angle. Baranski's unyielding Agnes with her allergy to sympathy makes for an only slightly less quippy Dowager Countess. Anges's counterpart, her spinster sister Ada (Nixon), is every bit as meek and kind-hearted as Agnes is resolute and mean; and their niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson, real-life daughter of Meryl Streep) is young and has her own ideas about defying the strict social codes her aunts impose on her, all familiar dynamics for even the most casual of Downton viewers.

    But the similarity macchine really hits full throttle when it comes to the servants. The Gilded Age doubles your downstairs pleasure by presenting the house staffs for both the Russell manse and Agnes van Rhijn's townhouse. The archetypes ought to be strikingly familiar. Kind yet slightly dotty cook? Check. Head butler who's by the book and constantly saying things like "It's not for us to have an opinion"? Check. Secretly hateful lady's maid called only by her last name? Check. Footman with a secret past of some extraction or another? Check. We haven't yet gotten to the chauffeur who romances someone from the aristocracy, but there's one young butler with an accent like a Newsie who we should probably keep an eye on.

    All these similarities to Julian Fellowes's former series will probably lead some to call The Gilded Age warmed over, but while it's no great drama, it is tremendously engaging, owing in no small part to the fact that the archetypes it ports over from that old English manor house are so durable here. It's bustling New York instead of pastoral Yorkshire, so the stakes are a bit higher. George Russell engages in the kind of economic brinksmanship that would make Lord Grantham feel faint, and the consequences are jarring. The war between Bertha and the society ladies — when it's not taking itself too seriously — is a great deal of fun.

    The supporting cast deserves special mention, in particular the cast of recurring and guest performers. The Gilded Age was able to film during the COVID pandemic, at a time when the Broadway community of New York was mostly out of work, and perhaps as a result some of the stage's best and brightest populate the vast universe of this show, including the aforementioned Donna Murphy and Audra McDonald. Tony Award winners Kelli O'Hara and Katie Finneran play a pair of society gatekeepers. Michael Cerveris, Debra Monk, Kristine Nielsen, and Celia Keenan-Bolger all play servants on one side of the avenue or the other. Nathan Lane lurks down the road as one of Mrs. Astor's trusted acolytes. It's as much fun spotting the decorated Broadway veterans on the periphery as it is to watch them spring to life, giving the series a crackle of energy and a spark of personality in even the smallest roles.

    Much like its namesake, The Gilded Age may not be the real thing when it comes to TV's next grand drama, but it gleams in its own way. It scratches an itch you may not have realized you had when it comes to sprawling period costume dramas that take themselves a bit too seriously but are nonetheless a great time as they swan about their vulgar wealthy business. Finally, we Americans get our own lavish, silly fun.

    The Gilded Age premieres on HBO and HBO Max Monday January 24th at 9:00 PM ET.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Gilded Age, HBO, Downton Abbey, Carrie Coon, Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, Julian Fellowes