The Gilded Age: Downton Abbey Creator Offers More of the Same Pleasures

The Gilded Age is another sumptuous period soap opera from Julian Fellowes -- with all of the advantages and drawbacks that entails.

It’s not surprising that creator Julian Fellowes has already hinted at the possibility of a crossover between Downton Abbey and his new series The Gilded Age, given how many similarities the new HBO show has to Fellowes’ hugely popular period drama. Although the two series are set decades and a continent apart, they deal with many of the same themes and are populated with many of the same character types, to the point that Downton Abbey fans could play a game of matching Gilded Age characters to their Downton counterparts.

There’s a certain comforting familiarity to The Gilded Age, though, and Fellowes remains adept at juggling a large cast and making an addictive drama out of the haughty concerns of the ultra-wealthy. There’s a bit more bite to some of the storylines on The Gilded Age, but overall this is a sumptuous period soap opera with Fellowes’ signature strengths and pitfalls.

While Downton Abbey focused on one rich and powerful family in early 20th-century England, The Gilded Age focuses on two neighboring families in 1882’s New York City and the conflict between their social classes. On one side of the street are the “old people,” with American ancestry allegedly reaching back to the Pilgrims. On the other side are the “new people,” descendants of poor farmers and laborers with recently acquired wealth via new business ventures like railroads.

Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) live in a spacious but stuffy home left to them by Agnes’ late husband. However, their niece, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), whose late father’s death left her penniless and reliant on her aunt’s generosity, soon arrives and upends their quiet lives. Marian comes from slightly humbler circumstances in Pennsylvania represents the forward-thinking outsider ready to disrupt rigid social traditions like Dan Stevens’ Matthew Crawley did in Downton Abbey.

Across the street from Agnes and Ada is the Russell family, led by rising New York City power player and owner of Russell Consolidated Trust George Russell (Morgan Spector). George’s wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) wants to penetrate Manhattan’s notoriously closed high society via whatever means necessary. Bertha focuses on finding a suitable match for her daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) and securing a position for her son Larry (Harry Richardson). The Russells have built themselves an absurdly lavish house to ostentatiously show off their wealth.

As on Downton AbbeyThe Gilded Age spends nearly as much time following the main characters’ butlers, maids, cooks, and footmen who serve the van Rhijn/Brook household and the Russells. Based on the first five episodes available for review, these two households offer up a dozen characters who receive a storyline. Fellowes, who wrote all five of those episodes, keeps multiple subplots simmering in each episode, laying the groundwork for potentially many seasons to come.

Although Fellowes still portrays harmonious relations between the upper and lower classes, he allows some darkness in his main characters — especially with the ruthless George and Bertha Russell. George is an unrepentantly corrupt businessman who thinks nothing of resorting to bribery or blackmail, and Bertha employs similar tactics to move up in society. The fancy Manhattan-based backstabbing sometimes gives The Gilded Age as much in common with Gossip Girl as Downton Abbey.

The Gilded Age explores issues of race more than Downton Abbey ever did, making Agnes’ Black secretary Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) a major character. Peggy is an aspiring writer and a friend and companion to Marian, but she’s always aware of being an outsider in the world of society and high culture. Fellowes doesn’t let his white characters off the hook simply for being benevolent, as he often does with the upper classes. It would be a stretch to call The Gilded Age progressive, but it at least acknowledges a social context beyond its marble walls.

Benton and Jacobson make an appealing duo as the women who may bring social change to New York’s ruling class. Baranski and Nixon are excellent as polar-opposite sisters raising their niece. Agnes is obviously The Gilded Age‘s version of Downton Abbey‘s Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), but Baranski is so good at delivering Fellowes’ barbed insults it’s easy to forgive the similarities. The Russells are slightly less interesting, even though they represent the era’s zeitgeist. Fellowes seems more at home writing drawing-room conversations than boardroom machinations.

The Gilded Age, of course, looks spectacular, with all of the elaborate sets and costumes that Downton Abbey viewers have come to expect. The visual style is so similar to Downton Abbey that some frames come off as exact copies. Just because Fellowes plays to his strengths doesn’t mean The Gilded Age isn’t enjoyable. It may not be the kind of gritty, dark period drama that viewers of HBO series like Deadwood or Boardwalk Empire expect. But for fans of Downton Abbey, it’s a welcomed new variation on Fellowes’ signature storytelling.

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