The Gilded Age
Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes finally turns his attention to Manhattan 1882 -has the wait been worth it?
I suspect I’m not alone in wondering if The Gilded Age, first announced in 2013, would ever reach our screens.
Delays, changes of broadcasters, pandemics… now it’s finally here has the wait been worth it?
Julian Fellowes so masterfully steered Downton Abbey for 6 seasons with producer Gareth Neame, and later director Michael Engler, that all three reunite to bring to life his vision of New York, 1882.
Like Downton all the hallmark touches are here, stunning costumes, elaborate interiors and locations, gossip, scandal, revenge, secrets and class hierarchy.
The addition this time around is race. Fellowes draws attention to the plight of “colored people” in this very high Manhattan society.
There are two stately households situated on opposite sides of Fifth Avenue.
Representing ‘old money’ -those whose wealth stretched back before the American Revolution- is socialite Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) who rules her house with a strict hand.
“We only receive the Old people in this house, not the new. Never the new,” she insists.
Her sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) is gentler and benevolent but dependent upon her sister for a roof over her head.
Their niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), who finds herself broke following the death of her father, travels to New York to live with her aunts, but struggles to fit with their conservative rules.
“You belong to Old New York my dear and don’t let anyone tell you different. You are my niece. And you belong to old New York,” Agnes instructs.
Marian brings with her a young black writer Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) who has dreams of publishing but is hired as Agnes’ secretary.
Across the road are the new neighbours, and new money, in the form of railrood tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) who is desperate to break into New York Society. Daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) is yet to be a debutante while dashing son Larry (Aussie Harry Richardson) is a recent Harvard University graduate.
Typical of Fellowes, there is also a parade of supporting characters, mostly in the form of household staff, from a diligent butler to the devious and mistrustful (there’s even a servant’s bell). Frankly it gets difficult trying to keep track of so many characters and remember who works in which household…
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 gatekeeper of NY society whose approval is paramount to Bertha.
In between the needlework, croquet, afternoon tea, parasols, charity functions and peering through the curtains at the neighbours (literally) is a dense, soapie labyrinth of subplots in which class divides the haves / have nots and a new order encroaching upon the city.
While George Russell proves a ruthless tyrant in business he is a devoted husband, encouraging Bertha for coming a long way in her pursuit of New York society.
“I don’t want to come a long way, I want to go all the way,” Bertha replies.
Just don’t cross the street where she would be lucky to set foot inside Agnes’ door…
Producers have ensured there is money on the screen here, with award-worthy costumes and handsomely-decorated sets. There’s a little CGI for exteriors, but on the whole a lot has been achieved during a pandemic.
Of the performances, Carrie Coon and Denée Benton are stand-outs, though it’s clear Baranski is in the equivalent role to Dame Maggie Smith -the senior snob who gets most of the best lines.
Fellowes can’t help but return to some familiar scandals in his plotting which are a little on the obvious side, and possibly a little old-fashioned, depending where he takes them. But you do have to admire the embracing of melodrama which is given full throttle execution from all departments. And a bonus, guest stars will include Jeanne Tripplehorn, Nathan Lane, while it opens with a double episode.
There’s definitely a feeling of Downton-lite here, but Fellowes is such a skilled storyteller, that we’ll surely be in for an entertaining ride.
The Gilded Age begins Wednesday on Paramount+.