I suspect I’m not alone in wondering if the golden age, first announced in 2013, would ever make it to our screens.
Delays, station changes, pandemics… now it’s finally here was it worth the wait?
Julian Fellowes rode so masterfully Downton Abbey for 6 seasons with producer Gareth Neame, and later director Michael Engler, all three reuniting to bring his vision of New York, 1882 to life.
As Downton all the signature touches are here, stunning costumes, elaborate interiors and locations, gossip, scandal, revenge, secrets and class hierarchy.
The addition this time is race. Fellowes calls attention to the plight of “people of color” in this very high society of Manhattan.
There are two stately homes located on opposite sides of Fifth Avenue.
Representing the “old money” – those whose wealth dates back to before the American Revolution – is socialite Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) who rules her household with a stern hand.
“In this house we only receive the old ones, not the new ones. Never the new,” she insists.
His sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) is kinder and more benevolent but depends on her sister for a roof over her head.
Their niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), who finds herself broke after her father’s death, travels to New York to live with her aunts, but struggles to adjust to their conservative rules.
“You belong in old New York, my dear, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You are my niece. And you belong in old New York,” Agnes instructs.
Marian brings with her a young black writer Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) who dreams of publishing but is hired as Agnes’s secretary.
Across the street are new neighbors and new money, in the form of railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) who are desperate to enter New York society. Daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) has yet to make her debut while handsome son Larry (Aussie Harry Richardson) is a recent graduate of Harvard University.
Typical of Fellowes, there’s also a parade of supporting characters, mostly in the form of domestic staff, from a diligent butler to the sneaky and distrustful (there’s even a servant’s bell). Frankly it gets hard trying to keep track of so many characters and remember who works in which house…
There’s also Tom (Thomas Cocquerel), a lawyer who has designs on Miss Marian, Agnes’ snooty son Oscar (Blake Ritson), and Caroline Astor (Amy Forsyth), the New York society custodian, whose endorsement it is fundamental to Bertha.
Between the needlework, croquet, afternoon tea, parasols, charity functions and gazing through curtains at neighbors (literally) is a thick, soapy maze of subplots where class divides the rich/poor and a new order invades the city.
While George Russell proves a ruthless tyrant in business, he is a devoted husband, encouraging Bertha to go a long way in her pursuit of New York society.
“I don’t want to go far, I want to go all the way,” replies Bertha.
Just don’t cross the street where she would be lucky to set foot inside Agnes’ door…
The producers have made sure there’s money on screen here, with award-worthy costumes and beautifully decorated sets. There is some CGI for the exteriors, but overall a lot has been achieved during a pandemic.
Of the performances, Carrie Coon and Denée Benton stand out, though it’s clear Baranski has an equivalent role as Dame Maggie Smith, the elderly snob who gets most of the best lines.
Fellowes can’t help but revert to some family scandals in his storyline that are a little obvious, and maybe a little old-fashioned, depending on where he takes them. But you have to admire the embrace of melodrama that is being run full throttle by all departments. And a bonus, guest stars will include Jeanne Tripplehorn, Nathan Lane, as it opens with a double episode.
There is definitely a feeling of Downton-lite here, but Fellowes is such an accomplished storyteller, we’re sure to enjoy it.
The Gilded Age begins Wednesday on Paramount+.