It’s been 3 years since we last got to experience the soapy, historical escapism of Julian Fellowes’ hit Downton Abbey, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t kept busy creating his very specific brand of entertainment. For one thing there’s another Downton movie slated to arrive this fall, he’s also put out the limited series Belgravia on Epix, and has been hard at work putting together this show, The Gilded Age, originally for NBC but subsequently moved to HBO.
This time, Fellowes’ signature blend of “upstairs downstairs” drama is moved to America in the 1880s. In the pilot episode, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) finds herself completely broke after the death of her father and so heads to New York City to live with her estranged aunts; the kindly Ada (Cynthia Nixon) and the sharp-tongued Agnes (Christine Baranski). On the way, she meets Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a young Black woman who is returning to the city after finishing her education, when Peggy offers her aid after she is robbed. Upon arriving, Agnes quickly takes to Peggy and offers her work as her secretary, to the discomfort of some of the downstairs staff. Things are a bit rockier between Agnes and the strong-willed Marian, who doesn’t take too kindly to the various rules of high society that are suddenly being imposed upon her.
Meanwhile, across the street, the nouveau riche George and Bertha Russell (Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon) have just moved into the massive new mansion they’ve had built as a way to make a splash with the city’s existing elites. Despite spending lavishly and trying to get involved in just the right charities, none of the old guard seem to want anything to do with them, though rebellious Marian does meet their son Larry (Harry Richardson) and the two rather unsurprisingly take a shine to each other.
Along with a few other subplots this basically gets things rolling for what looks to be some pretty standard Fellowes fare. In this first episode at least the staffs of the 2 houses are sidelined more than they were in Downton, perhaps because there is a good deal more plot to get started involving the main families themselves then that show’s ambling storylines required. Christine Baranski is clearly meant to be the stand-in for Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess and does an admirable job dispensing with cruel witticisms while still managing to be oddly likable. The rest of the cast does what needs to be done without any early standouts, but that only makes it easier to focus on the stunning costumes and sets. The lack of British accents does make it feel somewhat less high-brow, but at heart this show isn’t all that different from its UK sibling. Sure, it may feel like it bares its soap opera soul more openly than Downton did (at least at first), but it’s still a delight to watch and will help fill the abbey-sized hole that’s been in our lives these last few years. ★★★★
Rated TV-MA for… I’m not sure? In Episode 1 there is nothing that would merit above a TV-PG, but maybe it gets racier in later episodes?
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor