The Gilded Age Brings Downton Abbey to New York—And Mostly Works

Julian Fellowes conquered American TV with Downton Abbey, transforming PBS’s sleepy Masterpiece time slot into appointment TV. Perhaps it was just natural for the Oscar-winning screenwriter to cross the Atlantic in order meet his constituents. HBO’s The Gilded AgeThe result of this sojourn is titled “The Premiere January 24, 2014”.

This lavishly produced, well-respected, but uninspiring period drama is set in Manhattan’s late 19th-century high society. The times are changing just as they did in the past. DowntonThis bittersweet tribute to the landed class has been eroded over time by their extension as an inexplicable franchise. And with the self-made robber barons of the Machine Age invading their neighborhoods, multimillion-dollar fortunes and gaudy aesthetic preferences in tow, New York’s so-called People over 60Families that have held power in New Amsterdam for generations feel threatened by their social hegemony.
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For both the crowds and for addresses, it is of vital importance. The Gilded AgeThe upscale intersection at Fifth Avenue and 61st St. is where she lives. Agnes van Rhijn, a widowed socialite (Christine Baranski serving Violet Crawley Sass), has been living there for many decades. She reigns over Ada (Cynthia Nixon), and Oscar (Blake Ritson). “We only receive the old people,” Agnes declares. But she can’t stop a Beaux-Arts palace from going up across the street, to house railroad magnate George Russell (Morgan Spector), his ambitious wife Bertha (a ferocious Carrie Coon), Harvard-grad son Larry (Harry Richardson) and daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), for whom the couple longs to make an advantageous match.

Into this silent standoff stumbles the obligatory ingenue, Agnes and Ada’s niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), penniless in Pennsylvania following her father’s death. She arrives at the sisters’ home with a new acquaintance: Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a Black woman with literary aspirations, whom Agnes (a snob but not, by 19th century standards, a bigot) hires as a secretary. Marian and Peggy are both progressive, willful young women who live in homes that still follow old traditions.

HBO/ALISON COHEN ROSA/ALISON COHEN ROSALouisa Jacobson, left, and Denée Benton in ‘The Gilded Age’

If DowntonIs this the best Evelyn Waugh story? The Gilded Age kicks off Fellowes’ Edith Wharton era. His addictive formula is applied to a landscape beyond one house. It combines big-budget costumes drama with soapy plotting. At its best, it sheds light on how the social lives of Manhattan’s most prominent families influence their patriarchs’ world-historical careers.

The majority of the time, however, it entertains rather than illuminates. Fellowes uses too many archetypes that he loves, including the cheating servant and the gay couple. And while he includes two households’ worth of “below stairs” characters, their story lines go largely undeveloped in the five episodes sent for review. It’s as if their presence alone is meant to satisfy some sort of writerly noblesse oblige.

Downton AbbeyWith its refreshing twists and sexiness, dragged the TV period drama into 21st-century television. This success led to a host of funnier, better-written, and irreverent historic shows. BridgertonTo DickinsonTo The Great. (Alas,The Gilded Age fails to generate enough heat to rival Lady Mary’s lethal affair with a Turkish diplomat.) Fellowes seems to be struggling with the pace of progress, as do many others.


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