“Gilded Age” is a “Downton Abbey”” parody – but a very good one, set 30 years before Julian Fellowes’ award-winning work among the mansions of 5th Avenue, the sliced boardrooms, and the ink and paper offices of New York City late 19th century. With Edith Wharton, the aristocratic novelist of the era, the romantic drama pits old money against new and new cries for individual freedom against old hierarchies , whether based on class, race, or gender. One subtle difference is that while Fellowes’ “Downton” is best known for its nostalgic adoration of status-conscious Britons, despite its many dramatic works leading them, it despise most American figures (with the exception of Elizabeth McGovern’s wealthy matriarch). And, this time for Fellowes, a writer-creator, there was a slight disdain for 19th-century New York aristocrats and their crass nouveau riche riche rivals.
At the center, “The Gilded Age,” places two opposing groups — like the Jets and Sharks in “West Side Story.” In the East, we have old money and new money fighting to preserve, or raise the social hierarchy. In a corner, the haughty, arrogant, snobby Agnes Von Rhijn (Christine Baranski) takes on the role of Maggie Smith, Countess Dowager of Grantham. Baranski has a big hat to fill!
Beside her on their East 61st Street brownstone is her penniless sister Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon, who grew up with you). Then there’s a new episode in town: The disgruntled but gorgeous daughter of their late brother, Marion Brook (Louisa Jacobson, Meryl Streep’s third daughter, who died for Mama when she was her. he smiled sheepishly), came from rural Bucks County to stir the pot.
And, weigh in on the other corner — across 61st Street in a newly built Stanford White mansion on Fifth Avenue — are the challengers. Meet the striving Russells: railroad magnate George (Morgan Spector), social climber Bertha (a voracious Carrie Coon), Harvard graduate son Larry (Harry Richardson) and eligible daughter Gladys (Taissa). Farmiga), the married daughter Bertha wanted in exchange for an increase in family status. George, with his industrial investments, and Bertha with the power his new money gives to her social ambitions, are the Lord and Lady Macbeth of the show. The passionate partners work hand-in-hand to gain access to Von Rhijns and Astors’ homes, even if it means collateral damage between those stupid enough to intervene. The pair’s desire to gain access, the extreme measures they will take to get there, and elite resistance drive the gears of the plot.
Two groups of servants bridge the household, providing an upstairs-downstairs gossip link with some jokes that will be familiar to “Downton” fans. And in a side plot to counterbalance all this whiteness in a show against color blindness, we have Miss Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a college-educated writer from a family background. middle-class family in Brooklyn. She deserves a story, getting the first lines in a Black-owned newspaper after being told she could only appear in the white Christian newspaper if she bleached. Take the skin color of your characters and take a pseudonym. For one more nasty replay, Nathan Lane plays Ward McAllister, a high-society janitor.
With a large cast and complex setting, there are moments when the coach pulls behind the tense team of horses. As a historical fiction writer and history enthusiast who loves this varied time of change and evolution in the American Experience, I have tried to distract myself with eye candy whenever the the story begins, or the dialog is too engaging, or Coons’ Bertha goes momzilla.
These sets are a superb example of Victorian craftsmanship, with the added bonus of the home of the Russells being deliberately fussy and ostentatious. As for the gorgeous outfits, the eye-catching sky hats that Bertha boldly wore embody her sophisticated dressing sense and were an easy target for socialite Agnes.
Among the popular props, upstairs or downstairs, there are newspapers. In New York alone, there were more than 20 English-language daily newspapers at the time. So, like today’s internet, or America before the corporations devoured the local papers, there was always news available to the masses for every penny – and landing in the wrong column led to the scandal. with the real threat of social destruction.
“The Gilded Age” has yet to make it into the series that “Downton Abbey” has become. The panorama – much of it taken in the architecturally-packed Troy, New York City – holds promise. The conflicts are brought in – and I’ll leave it up to Baranski and Coon, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford of the series, to develop into their characters. Sharpen your tongue, ladies, and see where this carriage ride takes us.
“The Gilded Age” premieres on HBO on January 24.
https://www.thewrap.com/gilded-age-review-hbo-julian-fellowes-baranski/ Julian Fellowes to ‘Downton’ on 19th Century NYC