Review: HBO’s The Gilded Age is the American Downton Abbey

Julian Fellowes's lavish new series about old guard New Yorkers protecting their turf is about to become your new favourite costume drama

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      THE GILDED AGE (Julian Fellowes). Nine episodes begin streaming on Crave on Monday (January 24). 

      If you’ve been craving the upstairs/downstairs costume drama of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’s lavish new series, The Gilded Age, should satisfy that itch.

      The nine-part HBO series features gorgeous ball gowns, horse-drawn carriages and at least a dozen juicy plotlines about sex, money, and power. But instead of Downton’s largely rural setting, it takes place in the more familiar (to North American audiences, anyway) grand estates off Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue near Central Park, where New York’s old-guard blue bloods are trying to protect their turf from the crude nouveaux riches who want to buy their way into high society. 

      Representing the first set is Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), a wealthy widow who lives with her unmarried sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) and, in the pilot, takes in their penniless but bright and attractive niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson). The second set is personified by the Russells, savvy railroad tycoon George (Morgan Spector), his ambitious social-climber wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon), and their two children, whom Bertha wants to marry well.

      While there’s drama aplenty happening on the above-ground floors of these homes, there’s also smouldering passions, thwarted ambitions, and some big dark secrets in the servants’ quarters. Because both households have sets of workers, it’s a little hard to keep track of who’s who, but that should improve as the series continues.

      While the show’s designers draw on classic painters like Singer Sargent and Whistler, Fellowes lifts themes from Henry James and Edith Wharton. One of the series’ more intriguing subplots involves Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a young Black writer who helps out Marian in the pilot and ends up working as Agnes’s secretary. This offers up an intriguing look at race that neither writer dealt with.

      The period details—not just clothing but food, architecture and interiors—are stunning. And the acting is exceptional. Critics were given the first five episodes to view, and while at first it seems like the creators side with the old guard, as it progresses Coon and Spector turn the Russells into a fascinating new power couple who know how to lash out when they’re been snubbed. Nixon seems much more comfortable with this role than she does with And Just Like That’s Miranda. As for Baranski’s clever, seen-it-all Agnes, let’s just say she’s got the Maggie Smith role. Expect many of her bitchy bons mots to become memes. 

      Only Jacobson seems out of her element as a woman who wants to bring new ideas to the old world. Let’s hope she finds more shading to her character by the first season’s end. 

      Another caveat is that there are so many brilliant Broadway musical performers involved—including Audra McDonald, Benton, Patrick Page, Kelli O’Hara, Donna Murphy, and Michael Cerveris—that it’s a shame there’s no big musical scene. Perhaps in the season finale.