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‘The Gilded Age’ Brings ‘Downton Abbey’ to New York With Flair and Familiarity

Infiltrating a caste, as opposed to inheriting one’s membership, is a new premise for ‘Downton Abbey’ creator Julian Fellowes, and an intriguing one

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The British screenwriter Julian Fellowes, creator of the new HBO series The Gilded Age, is best known for two projects. The first, the 2001 film Gosford Park, won Fellowes the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay; the second, the historical drama Downton Abbey, was such a hit that it still lives on as a franchise. (The second Downton movie, A New Era, will hit theaters in March.) In setting and structure, the two stories are remarkably similar. Both get their names from the palatial (and fictional) English estates where they take place, and both split their sprawling ensembles between those who live in luxury and those whose labor enables it.

But there’s also a crucial difference between Fellowes’s magnum opera. In Gosford Park, the relationship between upstairs and downstairs is inherently adversarial, a dynamic underscored by the solution to its central murder mystery. The wealthy exploit and immiserate their underlings, one of whom exacts violent revenge—a posh forebear to Parasite. In Downton Abbey, by contrast, the Crawleys are benevolent rulers beloved by most, including their servants. You could chalk the change up to the medium; the prolonged exposure of a TV show makes it difficult to center loathsome people without humanizing them, even if shows like Succession prove it’s possible. Downton’s reversal is nonetheless profound. Gosford Park is a vicious, angry satire; Downton Abbey is a warm hug. It’s as if, in the decade between them, Fellowes succumbed to the surface-level charms of the ruling class, averting his eyes from its ugly underside.

Fellowes’s latest effort is decidedly on the Downton side of that divide. Cowritten with Sonja Warfield, The Gilded Age premieres on Monday night after years of development on multiple networks, ultimately changing hands from NBC to HBO. Fellowes’s fetishes—for the aristocracy, for the baroque rituals that justify it, and for the gentle, low-stakes problems of idle abundance—seem uniquely British. The Gilded Age tests that assumption, going where no Fellowes project has ever gone before: the United States of America, a country founded in opposition to the very system Fellowes takes as his subject.

And yet the transatlantic journey proves a smooth one. (This one does, at least: Fellowes also penned a 2012 miniseries about the fate of the Titanic.) Where Gosford Park and Downton Abbey are surprisingly at odds despite their parallels, Downton Abbey and The Gilded Age are surprisingly close despite their geographic distance. That’s partly because there’s a direct link between the two; Fellowes got the idea for The Gilded Age while researching “dollar princesses”—wealthy American women who married into Europe’s fading dynasties, offering their in-laws a needed infusion of cash. It’s a story not far off from that of Downton Abbey’s own Countess of Grantham, née Cora Levinson.

The Gilded Age has its own dollar princesses of sorts: Women who work their way into high society not necessarily through marriage, but the brute force of their freshly acquired fortunes from industry or finance. The show’s feature-length pilot, written by Fellowes and directed by Michael Engler, is obsessed with the binary of old and new. (The “money” after each adjective is implied.) “I don’t want my old friends. I want new friends,” declares Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), the latest resident of a mansion on East 61st Street circa 1880. “We only receive the old people in this house,” huffs Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), a wealthy widow displeased with her new neighbor, “never the new”—a phrase that gives the episode its title. Agnes and her sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) are members of the elite class that populates Edith Wharton novels and many New York street signs, descendants of the Dutch families that built the city well before the British arrived. They may not be landed, but America has always had its own gentry.

Infiltrating a caste, as opposed to inheriting one’s membership, is a new premise for Fellowes, and an intriguing one. Bertha’s husband George (Morgan Spector) is a newly minted railroad magnate—in other words, a robber baron. He has the funds to build his family a palace on the Upper East Side, but not the clout to open doors at the opera house or the debutante ball. Agnes’s “old people” are conflicted by the Russells and their ilk; they look down on them as nouveau riche even as they need their largesse for charity (the Red Cross) or civic enterprise (museums). The Gilded Age works in real-life historical figures as useful reference points, and the grasping strivers cited as Russell’s contemporaries are today’s hallowed names: your Rockefellers, your Vanderbilts, your J.P. Morgans. As everyone from the Sacklers to Bobby Axelrod knows, nothing launders a reputation like very public philanthropy.

Yet The Gilded Age offsets this new terrain with familiar tropes. Baranski is the cast’s clear standout as an aging, imperious diva prone to fits of indignation. (“I am struggling to hold back the tide of vulgarians that threatens to engulf us!”) She’s one week-end away from going full Dowager Countess. Both the Russells and the van Rhijns employ extensive staff who anchor their own story lines, but also point out details like the proper arrangement of glassware. And speaking of glassware, the backdrop to The Gilded Age is a character in and of itself, with production designer Bob Shaw and costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone giving as much a bravura performance as Baranski or Coon. It’s apparent the interiors are shot on a soundstage, but those stages are filled with imported furniture and embroidered gowns that render period detail with a fresh sheen. The Gilded Age quite literally wears its budget on its sleeve.

In sum, The Gilded Age excels at recreating the creature comforts of Downton Abbey. For those who want one, the show is an escapist balm, a comforting distraction from the woes of the world. The plot’s lack of urgency is a selling point in and of itself. Can Bertha get her snooty peers to come to her dinner party? Will Agnes and Ada’s niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), an impoverished orphan from Pennsylvania, adjust to her new home? You won’t be at the edge of your seat—just deeply ensconced in your couch, perhaps sipping a cup of tea.

Where it falters is in expanding its range. Fellowes clearly relishes his new environs; The Gilded Age has a passion for niche New York historical figures that’s Mrs. Maisel–esque, give or take a century. Viewers will recognize Clara Barton (Linda Emond), whose Red Cross is the .01 percent’s latest cause du jour, but architect Stanford White (John Sanders) or social arbiter Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane) are cameos for the true history heads. Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy) functions not unlike Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte, a lofty figure who observes the action from above and occasionally deigns to influence it.

But America is more than a shiny new set of proper nouns. Fellowes also attempts to address the more serious side of a nation less than 20 years past the Civil War. Marian’s new friend Peggy (Denée Benton), an aspiring writer, takes a job as Agnes’s secretary while submitting stories to white- and Black-owned newspapers. The story line expands over time to include Peggy’s parents Dorothy (Audra McDonald) and Arthur (John Douglas Thompson), but still feels vestigial—just one thread among many, saddled with a uniquely heavy form of social commentary. That commentary can be effective when directed at the main cast; a scene in which a condescending act of charity blows up in Marian’s face is delightful. Still, even working Peggy into that cast requires some visible strain. Agnes is a stickler for conservative mores in every other part of her life, but she’s oddly nonchalant about hiring her first and only Black employee.

The Gilded Age is, in theory, a show about social change. Yet it’s strangely agnostic about that change and how it happens, at least in matters less right-and-wrong than racial prejudice. The show relishes the Russells’ arrival as a chance for sparks to fly, though it sometimes seems to mirror their new circle’s contempt for the arrivistes—and not always for the right reasons. Men like George Russell did not make their fortunes without dirtying their hands; there are reasons the actual Gilded Age is best remembered as a time of staggering inequality, not social progress. The Russells are indeed portrayed as more ruthless and sharp-elbowed than their more established peers, but it’s treated more as a matter of social politesse than moral outlook. A shrewder show could hone this into real insight: in their naked, open striving, the Russells reveal their supposed betters to be as crass and materialist as they are, their elegance an arbitrary fiction. Instead, it’s ambivalent. We’re repeatedly told the Russells and their kind are “the future,” but The Gilded Age seems more nostalgic for what’s lost than eager for what’s to come.

It’s here where the ghost of Gosford Park rears its head. Asking a Downton Abbey heir to skewer the rich is a bit like asking Ada’s lapdog Pumpkin to write cursive—or it would be, if Fellowes hadn’t already shown such a knack for it. Nor is it just Gosford Park that looms over The Gilded Age. Perhaps due to its network TV roots, the show is oddly restrained for a prestige cable drama; all sex is quickly cut away from, making one character’s attempt at seduction almost laughable. Prim and proper is a concerted change of pace for the home of Euphoria. Still, it’s within Fellowes’s rights to soften his stance, and HBO’s to broaden its range in an attempt to capture some of Downton Abbey’s massive audience. Even if the characters of The Gilded Age can’t embrace change, perhaps its viewers will.