“The Gilded Age” is a “Downton Abbey” knockoff — but a very good one, set 30 years before Julian Fellowes’ award-sweeping period piece among the Fifth Avenue mansions, cutthroat boardrooms and inky newsrooms of late-19th-century New York City. With a hat-tip to Edith Wharton, the novelist of the era’s aristocracy, the romantic drama pits old money against new, and new cries for individual freedoms against old hierarchies, whether based on class or race or sex. One subtle difference is that while Fellowes’ “Downton” floated on a nostalgic adoration of its status-conscious Englishmen, despite their many drama-driving peccadilloes, it disdained most American characters (except Elizabeth McGovern’s wealthy matriarch). And, this time around for writer-creator Fellowes, there’s a salty bit of disdain for the 19th-century New York aristocrats and their crass nouveau riche rivals.
At the center, “The Gilded Age,” sets two groups in opposition – like the Jets and the Sharks of “West Side Story.” On the East Side, we have old money and new money battling to preserve, or ascend, the social hierarchy. In one corner, the arrogant, brittle, snobbish Agnes Von Rhijn (a tart Christine Baranski) takes the Maggie Smith, Dowager Countess of Grantham role. Baranski has a big hat to fill!
At her side on their East 61st Street brownstone is her penniless spinster sister Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon, who grows on you). Then there’s the new ingénue in town: Their late brother’s indigent but stunning daughter, Marion Brook (Louisa Jacobson, Meryl Streep’s third daughter, a dead-ringer for Mama when she smiles shyly), arrives from rural Bucks County to stir the pot.
And, weighing in on the other corner –- across 61st Street in a new-built Stanford White villa at Fifth Avenue — are the challengers. Meet the striving Russells: railroad tycoon George (Morgan Spector), social climber Bertha (a voracious Carrie Coon), Harvard-educated scion Larry (Harry Richardson) and eligible daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), the marriageable daughter Bertha wants to barter for increased family status. George, with his industrial investments, and Bertha with the power his new money brings to her social ambitions, are the show’s Lord and Lady Macbeth. The passionate partners work hand-in-glove to achieve entry to the homes of the Von Rhijns and Astors, even if that means collateral damage among those foolish enough to intercede. The couple’s desire to gain access, the extreme measures they’ll take to get there, and the elite’s resistance drives the plot’s gears.
Two sets of servants bridge the households, providing an upstairs-downstairs gossip conduit with some tropes that will be familiar to “Downton” fans. And in a subplot to counterbalance all this whiteness in a show that resists color-blind casting, we have Miss Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a college-educated aspiring writer from a middle-class Brooklyn family. She merits a story arc, getting her first bylines at a Black-owned newspaper after being told she can only appear in the white Christian paper if she scrubs away the color of her characters’ skin and assumes a pseudonym. For an extra dose of snarky repartée, Nathan Lane plays Ward McAllister, a high society gatekeeper.
With a cast this big, and much expository context, there are moments when the coach drags behind the team of straining horses. As a historical fiction writer, and a history nerd who loves this mulchy time of change and evolution in the American Experience, I managed to distract myself with eye candy whenever the plot flags, or the dialog is too on the nose, or Coons’ Bertha goes momzilla.
The sets are a sublime example of Victorian craftsmanship, with the added bonus that the Russells’ house is intentionally gaudy and ostentatious. As for the sumptuous costumes, the eye-popping, sky-scratching hats that Bertha boldly wears are the sartorial embodiment of her tacky taste and an easy target for social arbiter Agnes.
Among the ubiquitous props, upstairs or downstairs, are newspapers. In New York alone, there were over 20 English-language dailies at the time. So, like today’s internet, or America before conglomerates gobbled up local papers, there was always news available to the masses for pennies — and landing in the wrong column propelled scandal with the real threat of social ruin.
“The Gilded Age” hasn’t quite yet gelled into the series that “Downton Abbey” became. The panorama — much of it shot in architecturally impressive Troy, New York — is promising. The conflicts are baked in — and I’ll leave it to Baranski and Coon, the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford of the series, to grow into their characters. Sharpen your tongues, ladies, and let’s see where this carriage ride takes us.
“The Gilded Age” debuts on HBO on January 24.