Review: Downton's Julian Fellowes Refocuses His Lens on 'The Gilded Age'

by JC Alvarez

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday January 20, 2022

Louisa Jacobson and Denée Benton in 'The Gilded Age'
Louisa Jacobson and Denée Benton in 'The Gilded Age'  (Source:Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)

In the new HBO Original Series from the creator of "Downton Abbey," Julian Fellowes delivers as the writer and executive producer, richly detailing stories while refocusing his lens on "The Gilded Age," premiering on January 24.

Money changes everything, and in the late 19th Century that was nowhere more apparent than in New York. As industry moved in and the railroads began to connect the central port cities with the West, civilization was fast-moving — as was high society. "New money" poured in, and while the establishment of "Old New York" fought to maintain the status quo of the elites, lines were being drawn that effectively criss-crossed through Manhattan and its boroughs, marking the territory of who was "in" and who had to be kept out. Riches of opportunity were in abundance, but affluence was controlled by a handful of wealthy families.

The series opens in 1882, with the introduction of Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), who, after the death of her father, must leave her home in Pennsylvania and live with her aunts in New York City. Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) are what is considered "old money." Agnes married well, is considered a pillar in society, and shares her home with her sister Ada, who is a spinster. The sisters are looking forward to Marian's arrival, but are unaware of their niece's very modern thinking, and they may be unprepared for the consequences that might follow.

On her trip to New York City, Marian befriends a young African-American woman, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), who has aspirations of becoming a writer and is fully prepared for the obstacles set before her. As fate would have it, her arrival at the home of Agnes van Rhijn accompanying Marian is well-timed. Impressing van Rhijn with her expert penmanship, skill, and confidence, Peggy fills a necessary position as Agnes' secretary, and becomes a companion for Marian on her journey to ascend in society, live up to her aunts' expectations, and stay true to her own ideals while navigating the rigors of social climbing.

There aren't very many writers who are able to narrate the lives of interesting characters at the height of the 19th Century that could resonate with contemporary audiences. Fellowes is effortless in his ability to weave history, and presents a deliciously inviting and masterful intrigue with his dive into New York City of 1882 that permeates "The Gilded Age" while inviting an audience to revisit a bygone era.

On the other side of the fence — literally across the street from the home of Agnes van Rhijn — is the palatial residence of George and Bertha Russell (played by Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon). The Russells have risen from the middle class into "new money" wealth. George's ruthless instincts and cunning have him preparing to run the railroads that will chart the frontiers to the West. Bertha is determined to weave her way into society, and expects nothing less for her daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) and son, Larry (Harry Richardson). Bertha intends for her family to leave a mark.

The lives of "old" New York and the ambitions of the "new money" moving up in society become intertwined as powerful alliances are built, and long traditions are compromised as "The Gilded Age" elaborates an intrigue brokered on wealth, power, and the duty to family, and a world that is rapidly evolving at the speed of a runaway train. If you enjoyed "Downton Abbey," then "The Gilded Age" is ripe with exactly the soapy richness and escapism that you've come to appreciate. The cast is expertly built, and inhabits the era in a way that will transport the viewing audience. Welcome to 1882!

"The Gilded Age" premieres on HBO January 24.

Native New Yorker JC Alvarez is a pop-culture enthusiast and the nightlife chronicler of the club scene and its celebrity denizens from coast-to-coast. He is the on-air host of the nationally syndicated radio show "Out Loud & Live!" and is also on the panel of the local-access talk show "Talking About".