‘The Gilded Age’ brings the ‘Downton Abbey’ touch to old New York (review)

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In his new HBO series, “The Gilded Age,” Julian Fellowes essentially moves “Downton Abbey” across the pond. Which, as it turns out, isn’t a bad thing at all. Fellowes, the creator and writer of “Downton Abbey,” has turned the clock back to 1882 for “The Gilded Age,” and placed the story in New York City. But the new series shares with its British cousin Fellowes’ love of upstairs-downstairs characters, splendid households, sumptuous costumes, crisply witty dialogue, and abundantly soapy plotlines.

How to watch: “The Gilded Age” premieres at 9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 24 on HBO. No cable? You can stream the series on HBO Max

“The Gilded Age” begins as Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) learns that her late father has left her penniless, which means Marian must depart her rural Pennsylvania home and go to New York City to live with her aunt Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), a wealthy widow, and Agnes’ sister, Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon).

After being robbed at the train station, Marian is saved by the kindness of Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), who lends Marian money for her train fare. This means Marian now rides in the segregated section of the train, since Peggy is Black.

"The Gilded Age"

Louisa Jacobson as Marian Brook and Denée Benton as Peggy Scott in “The Gilded Age.” (Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)

Fellowes wastes no time setting up the central theme of “The Gilded Age,” which is the conflict between the old money snobbishness represented by Agnes, and the new money upstart ambitions of Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon).

Bertha and her fabulously wealthy railroad mogul husband, George (Morgan Spector), have built a jaw-droppingly ostentatious mansion across from the van Rhijn residence.

This development isn’t met with enthusiasm by Agnes, to put it mildly. “I am struggling,” as she says, “trying to hold back the tide of vulgarians that threaten to engulf me.”

Fellowes, who created and wrote “The Gilded Age,” seems to be freshening up the “Downton Abbey” playbook in the nine-episode HBO series. It isn’t hard, for example, to see Agnes’ tart-tongued defense of the old guard as an Americanized version of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in “Downton Abbey.”

Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski in the new HBO period series, The Gilded Age

Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski in the new HBO period series, “The Gilded Age.” (Photo: HBO)

As with the British series, “The Gilded Age” offers a sprawling cast of characters, including the wealthy elite, their social circle, and the downstairs staff, who have their own backstories and ambitions.

Based on the first five episodes available to preview, the valets, butlers, cooks, maids and housekeepers who work in the van Rhijn and Russell homes are still a bit of a blur, though hints are dropped that some of them are keeping secrets, which no doubt will be revealed at a later point.

Perhaps in an effort to address criticism that “Downton Abbey” overlooked issues of class and race discrimination, “The Gilded Age” pays close attention to Peggy Scott, her family, and her goal of becoming a professional writer.

"The Gilded Age"

Audra McDonald as Dorothy Scott in “The Gilded Age.” (Photo: Alison Rosa/HBO)

Initially, at least, Fellowes seems to be engaging in his trademark convenient plotting, as the snooty Agnes abruptly decides to engage Peggy as her secretary. But later episodes do a more nuanced job of filling in Peggy’s story, as we meet her parents (played by Audra McDonald and John Douglas Thompson), and witness an example of Marian’s condescending, mistaken assumptions about the family’s economic situation.

While it lacks the emotional power of Martin Scorsese’s exquisite movie version of Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” — which chronicles how the era’s rigid social structures could destroy lives – “The Gilded Age” instead succeeds because of Fellowes’ gift for humor, his generosity toward even despicable characters, and an embarrassment of riches in the acting department.

What a cast! Baranski is splendidly dry and witty as Agnes. Nixon is delicate and surprisingly complex as Ada, the so-called “spinster” aunt. Jacobson’s Marian is intelligent and watchful, as she decides how much to defer to Agnes’ old money rituals, and how far to venture on her own. Coon is a delight as the shrewd, driven, nouveau riche Bertha. Spector makes us believe that John is cutthroat when it comes to business, but utterly devoted to his wife. Benton makes Peggy multi-dimensional, both brave and sensitive.

And those are just the lead characters. The rest of the cast is packed with talent, including McDonald, Thompson, Donna Murphy as the social sovereign Mrs. Astor, Kelli O’ Hara and Katie Finneran as old money matriarchs, Debra Monk and Michael Cerveris as downstairs staff, Nathan Lane as Mrs. Astor’s social “gatekeeper,” and talented younger people – including Taissa Farmiga, Harry Richardson, Blake Ritson, and Thomas Cocquerel — as daughters, sons, and would-be suitors.

“The Gilded Age” may not offer penetrating insights into the late 19th century, or the vast gulf between tycoons building extravagant empires and the poverty of those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Fellowes and his collaborators instead seem focused on maintaining a light, satiric touch. It may not be illuminating, but “The Gilded Age” is undeniably entertaining.

— Kristi Turnquist

kturnquist@oregonian.com 503-221-8227 @Kristiturnquist





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