I guess I’m not the only one wondering if The Gilded Age, first announced in 2013, would someday reach our screens.
Delays, channel changes, pandemics… now it’s finally here, was the wait worth it?
Julian Fellowes so masterfully sent Downton Abbey for 6 seasons with producer Gareth Neame, and later director Michael Engler, all three reuniting to bring his vision of New York, 1882, to life.
Like it Downton all the signature details are there, stunning costumes, elaborate interiors and locations, gossip, scandal, revenge, secrets and class hierarchy.
The addition this time is race. Fellowes draws attention to the plight of “people of color” in this very high Manhattan society.
On either side of Fifth Avenue are two stately households.
The socialite Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) represents her house with a strict hand.
“We only receive the old people in this house, not the new ones. Never the new’, she emphasizes.
Her sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) is gentler and benevolent, but dependent on her sister for a roof over her head.
Their niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), broke after her father’s death, travels to New York to live with her aunts, but struggles to conform to their conservative rules.
“You belong to Old New York sweetheart and don’t let anyone else tell you. You are my cousin. And you belong to old New York,’ Agnes instructs.
Marian brings with her a young black writer Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) who dreams of publishing, but is hired as Agnes’ secretary.
Across the street are new neighbors and new money, in the form of railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious wife Bertha (Carrie Coon), who is desperate to break into the New York Society. Daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) has yet to become a debutante, while handsome son Larry (Aussie Harry Richardson) recently graduated from Harvard University.
Typical of Fellowes, there is also a parade of supporting characters, usually in the form of domestic servants, from the industrious butler to the cunning and suspicious (there’s even a servant bell). Honestly, it’s getting hard to keep track of so many characters and remember who works in which household…
There’s also Tom (Thomas Cocquerel), a lawyer who designs Miss Marian, Agnes’ cocky son Oscar (Blake Ritson), and Caroline Astor (Amy Forsyth), the gatekeeper of New York society whose approval is paramount to Bertha.
Between the handicrafts, croquet, afternoon tea, umbrellas, charity parties and peering through the curtains at the neighbors (literally) is a dense, soapy labyrinth of subplots in which class divides the haves/have-nots and a new order invades the city.
While George Russell proves to be a ruthless tyrant in business, he is a devoted husband, encouraging Bertha to go a long way in her pursuit of New York society.
“I don’t want to get very far, I want to go all the way”, replies Bertha.
Just don’t cross the street where she would be lucky if she set foot inside Agnes’ door…
Producers have ensured that money is on the screen here, with price-worthy costumes and beautifully decorated sets. There’s a bit of CGI for exteriors, but overall a lot has been accomplished during a pandemic.
Of the performances, Carrie Coon and Denée Benton are the star performers, although it’s clear that Baranski fills the same role as Dame Maggie Smith – the senior snob who gets most of the best lines.
Fellowes can’t help but returns to some known scandals in his conspiracy that are a bit on the obvious, and possibly a bit old-fashioned depending on where he takes them. But you have to admire the embrace of the melodrama that is performed at full speed from all departments. And a bonus, guest stars include Jeanne Tripplehorn, Nathan Lane, as it kicks off with a double episode.
There is definitely a feeling of Downton-lite here, but Fellowes is such an accomplished storyteller, we’re definitely in for an entertaining ride.
The Gilded Age kicks off Wednesday on Paramount+.