Film & Television

It’s Old Money vs. New in ‘The Gilded Age’

Through six seasons of Downton Abbey, it wasn’t too difficult to guess what Julian Fellowes thinks of Americans. Except for Cora, whose fortune saved the estate years earlier, Yanks aren’t painted in the most flattering light. There’s Mrs. Levinson, generally thought to be loud and crass because she is . . . well . . . loud and crass. Her son, Harold, a ne’er-do-well playboy, gets caught up in the Teapot Dome scandal and bribes good-time girls with diamond bracelets. American lady’s maid Miss Reed insists, “This is 1920. Time to live a little,” while American valet Ethan is a bit of a doofus. Even Rose’s verboten lover Jack Ross, while sympathetic, is more of a novelty than a fully drawn character.

Sixty-nine Emmy nominations later, Downton was arguably a bigger hit in the U.S. than the U.K. But, deep down, we suspect that Fellowes, like Violet, the Dowager Countess, was secretly wondering, “Why must every day involve a fight with an American?” In fact, a good number of the beloved barbs written for the Dowager express her distaste for the former colonies. 

Violet: (to Cora) I’m so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English. 

Matthew: But isn’t she American?

Violet: Exactly.

Ba-dum-bum-ching. (I confess I always thought Maggie Smith deserved a punchline drumroll à la Rodney Dangerfield. But that really would be too American.)

So, I had to wonder . . . what exactly would Fellowes do with his latest series, The Gilded Age, on HBO, which takes place in that most American of cities, New York?

Whether he supports the unfortunate events of 1776 or not, rest assured that Fellowes has put that behind him and embraced the new world. If you’re a fan of all the pomp and circumstance of period drama, the new show out-Downtons Downton. The costumes are lavish, the sets are gorgeous, the dinner parties stupendous, the doyennes disdainful, and the servants servile.

On the other hand, if you’ve raised an eyebrow (or two) over Downtons more contrived plots and perpetual melodrama, you’ll find those here in abundance as well. Only one episode in and we’ve already been introduced to a penniless orphan, a backstabbing lady’s maid, a secret homosexual affair, a ruthless robber baron, an ambitious lady journalist, and a pair of probable star-crossed lovers (although one is the penniless orphan, so I’m double dipping). We have Downton’s upstairs/downstairs dynamic going on in two households rather than one, and class warfare between Manhattan’s old and new money on a magnificent scale.

Set in 1882, The Gilded Age follows the fortunes of two families: the imperious van Rhijns and the up-and-coming Russells. The van Rhijns live in a somber (tasteful) brownstone mansion on one corner of Fifth Avenue and 61st. The Russells have just built an ornate (tasteless) marble mansion across the street. They aren’t exactly Shakespeare’s “two households, both alike in dignity.” All of the dignity is assumed by the van Rhijns. The Russells make up for it with a modern preoccupation with conspicuous consumption.

“New York is a collection of villages. The old have been in charge since the Revolution. Until the new people invaded,” matriarch Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski in a wicked role she was born to play) tells her idealistic niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson, youngest daughter of Meryl Streep). She is determined that her new ward (Marian’s father/Agnes’s brother has recently died) meet the “right people” in the “right way” in the “right clothes” . . . you get the picture. Their household also includes kindly spinster Aunt Ada (Cynthia Nixon in a less controversial role than she’s playing on HBO’s Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That), a handful of servants, a new secretary, Peggy (Denée Benton), a young Black woman who helped Marian get to New York, and a spirited spaniel named Pumpkin.

The Russells’ household includes railroad magnate George (Morgan Spector), recent Harvard graduate Larry (Harry Richardson), ingenue Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), an ambitious maid, a French chef, and dozens of liveried footmen, who literally roll out a red carpet when the family schedules its first “at home” to curry favor with New York’s elite. All of the above are lorded over (or ladied over?) by matriarch Bertha (the arresting Carrie Coon), who will stop at nothing to take her rightful place at the very top of society. “You are the future, Mrs. Russell,” her architect, Stanford White, tells her, “and if you are the future, they must be the past. That’s why they’re afraid of you.” After a particularly humiliating evening, Bertha vows, “I’ll make them all sorry!” Her husband, who, although cold-hearted in business, dotes on his wife, commends her. “Defeat is not your color, my dear.”

Besides HBO’s obviously extravagant resources (the bustles alone would bankrupt most costume budgets), The Gilded Age boasts a magnificent cast. Seemingly dissatisfied with simply hiring top television and movie talent, the series has the greatest number of Tony winners ever assembled in a single ensemble. In addition to Baranski (two Tonys), Nixon (two Tonys), Benton (one nomination), and Coon (one nomination), the cast includes many of Broadway’s crème de la crème: Audra MacDonald (a record six Tonys), Bill Irwin (one Tony), Celia Keenan Bolger (one Tony), Debra Monk (one Tony), Donna Murphy (two Tonys), Katie Finneran (two Tonys), Kelli O’Hara (seven-time nominee), Linda Emond (three-time nominee), Michael Cerveris (two Tonys), and Nathan Lane (three Tonys). Given how hard COVID hit Broadway and live theater in general, it’s wonderful to see so many talented thespians plying their trade. If the story gets a little silly at times (and I have no doubt that it will), we can at least be sure that the acting will be first-rate.

The definition of first-rate is really what’s at stake in The Gilded Age. Is it the understated distinction of New York’s old guard? Or the opulence of the city’s self-made captains of industry? Tea and cake with the van Rhijns or champagne and lobster salad with the Russells? Bertha Russell seems to have it all, but the only club she wants to join is the only one that won’t have her. The Gilded Age raises questions of human nature and acute observations about so-called progress and the inevitability of change. 

Then again, you can just watch it for the ballgowns, which are much more fun.

Meanwhile, if you prefer your period drama set on the other side of the pond, the second Downton Abbey movie, A New Era, is scheduled for release on March 18. That’s just 51 days away.

Not that I’m counting, or anything.

The Gilded Age is available to stream on HBO Max. New episodes air at 9 pm Mondays.

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  • Jo Shafer January 26, 2022 at 12:20 pm

    I tried and tried to find HBO on my computer streaming devices. Is HBO a television channel? Sadly, I missed the first episode of this long-awaited series I first read about in the Seattle Times. Where, oh where, do I find HBO, pray tell?

    Reply