'The Gilded Age' - Julian Fellowes' new New York

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday January 19, 2022
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Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski in 'The Gilded Age'
Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski in 'The Gilded Age'

2022 is shaping up as the year of the return of Baron Julian Fellowes. On March 18, the second sequel film, Downton Abbey: The New Era, opens, forwarding the action to the early 1930s as the Crawley family visits a villa in the south of France following 2019's Downton Abbey with its royal visit to the Yorkshire country estate.

On January 24, Downton's creator-writer-producer debuts his new long-awaited period drama series The Gilded Age on HBO. The Gilded Age, roughly the 1870s to 1900, was an era of rapid expansion of industrialization and economic growth, creating new opportunities, which led to fabulous wealth for a few —derided as robber barons (businessmen who used exploitative practices to amass their fortunes)— and extreme poverty for others.

While Downton Abbey focused on the end of the English Edwardian era, The Gilded Age is the tale of an emerging new world, that is the beginning of what we call the American Dream, with social change and the start of a U.S. culture reinventing itself from its European roots.

The aristocrats

At the outset, those who hope The Gilded Age will be the next Downton Abbey sensation —the most popular program in English television history and the most watched PBS series ever— will be gravely dismayed. Downton Abbey became a cultural phenomenon largely because it followed the 2008 global financial crisis which created great income disparity between the wealthiest one percent and the rest of the population.

But in Downton Abbey the divide between the aristocratic rich and their working-class servants wasn't so impenetrable as they intermingled in each other's lives. They cared about each other and we cared about the whole cast and their struggles.

Also, Downton was the soapiest of soap operas, yet the opulent quality of the production muted the trashy elements, virtually vanishing the line between highbrow and lowbrow.

Finally, there were rules of behavior acknowledged by all with only the rarest of breaches, a black and white world of rigid protocol as opposed to the uncertainty of our grey fluid times. The Gilded Age is actually the sociological story of the roots of today's corporate culture with its themes of ruthlessness, the rise of entrepreneurialism, and race relations quite contemporary, rather than a pacifying engrossing amusement of a bygone era like Downton.

The classes appeared more malleable in Downton (even if historically this was an iffy proposition) than the subtle warfare depicted in Gilded. Fellowes has a knack for making us want to watch and give a damn about rich people dealing with rich people's problems.

Louisa Jacobsen and Denee Benton in 'The Gilded Age'  

Ups and downs
After her retired Union general father dies and leaves her penniless, our heroine Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobsen) relocates from the Pennsylvania countryside to Manhattan where out of pity and duty, her rich aunts —proud, stubborn Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon)— take her in as a companion.

Accompanied by her new Black acquaintance Peggy Scott (Denee Benton), a budding writer, Marian becomes a pawn in a social war between her aunt's old-money set (instituted long before the American Revolution) and her new rich (as in nouveau riche) neighbors, unscrupulous railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his power-hungry wife Bertha (Carrie Coon).

Marian is courted by a Pennsylvania lawyer Tom Raikes (Thomas Concquerel), who also transplanted to New York so he can pursue her by advancing himself socially. The question posed by the series is, will Marian follow the established rules of society or create her own path?

It's worth noting that the first season of Downton also posed a similar quandary with regards to Michelle Dockery's Lady Mary as a renegade willing to risk her reputation by having a one night fling with a dashing Turkish diplomat (who dies in her bed) in her quest to find a suitable husband.

Once again Fellowes has resurrected Downton's Upstairs Downstairs formula (why tamper with success) with mini-portraits of the servants who work in both the van Rhijn's and Russell's homes. However, based on the five episodes sent to the press, so far there are no loveable Mrs. Patmore or Mrs. Hughes figures here.

But there are plenty of shady mean-spirited Mrs. O'Brien and Tom Barrow types, especially Turner (Kelley Curran), Bertha's ambitious lady's maid who will stop at nothing to upgrade her position. Church (Jack Gilpin), the Russell family's butler and Bannister (Simon Jones), the Van Rhijns' butler, both exhibit some of Carson's formality and air of superiority, though seem less curmudgeonly.

Fellowes also seemed to have incorporated some merciless, cold-blooded elements from HBO's hit Succession series about the Roys —dysfunctional family owners of a global media and entertainment conglomerate— into George and Bertha Russell, 1880's version of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth.

They will stop at nothing to rule the business world and high society, the latter determined to maintain tradition and etiquette by scorning their new money status (except for philanthropy), politely excommunicating them socially. George is the more fascinating villain, as while he's utterly unprincipled in business, he's a devoted husband and father, even rejecting Turner's enticements.

Unlike the totally white Downton cast, with black co-writer Sonja Warfield, the Peggy Scott character is a multi-faceted one, acting as both secretary to Agnes and friend to Marian as she navigates respectability in racist white circles while pursuing her dream of becoming a writer. Her father, a professional Black class success story, objects to her career, but she has the grudging support of her mother Dorothy (the fabulous Audra McDonald).

Blake Ritson 'The Gilded Age'  (Source: HBO)

On the queer front, we have Blake Ritson as Oscar, Agnes's gay son, who despite having a male lover, wants to marry a rich heiress, with every intention of continuing his homosexual relationship on the side.

Once again, as with Barrows in Downton, Oscar is a semi-vicious unlikable schemer and one is left to wonder if straight Fellowes is capable of developing a positive amiable gay character. As consolation he gives us gay Nathan Lane's campy Ward McAllister, the ultimate social arbiter and gatekeeper of old New York decorum, looking and sounding like Colonel Sanders from KFC.

Agnes is the Dowager Countess imitation and similarly is given Fellowes' wittiest lines: "Power belongs to old New York, not the new, never the new;" "Why don't we just go outside and roll in the gutter? It will save time." Baranski in delivery and demeanor is a satisfying successor to Downton's formidable Maggie Smith.

Luxurious veneer
Lesbian Cynthia Nixon as Ada plays good cop (kind but not very clever) to Agnes's bad cop (clever but not very kind). She's delicious as always but her versatile talents seem wasted, though this role/series is superior to her other HBO project, the semi-abysmal And Just Like That reboot of Sex and the City.

As Marian, newcomer Jacobsen is a bit stiff and stand-offish but seems to be growing into the role as the series progresses.

Fellowes seems intrigued by how women began to forge their own independence, using Red Cross founder Clara Barton as an exemplar.

As with Downton, the couture is gorgeous and filming takes place at stunning Newport Bellevue Avenue mansions Chateau-sur-Mer and Cornelius Vanderbilt's Breakers, plus the Lyndhurst, a Gothic Revival mansion in Tarrytown, but nothing can compare to Downton's majestic Highclere Castle.

Fellowes remains superb at being able to juggle myriad plot lines so even small characters are given a modest backstory. To his credit, each episode moves at a clipped pace and manages to maintain audience curiosity, though overall the characters are less colorful and emotionally involving as those of Downton.

Despite the luxurious veneer, The Gilded Age is a notch down from PBS Masterpiece and BBC high standards. Still, the series has promise and is a pleasing diversion worth your time.


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