Agnes van Rhijn: You are my niece, and you belong to old New York.
When Downton Abbey crossed the pond to PBS in 2011, the truncated form it arrived in—edited down from seven episodes to four—was a sign of how little Masterpiece expected of the winter-filler acquisition. Instead, it changed the entire PBS landscape. It also generated a spinoff announcement at its height. The Gilded Age, an 1880s New York set prequel from series creator Julian Fellowes, was set for NBC (producer Carnival Films is owned by NBCUniversal), telling the story of the wealthy Cora Levinson and her engagement to fortune-hunter Lord Grantham.
A Downton Abbey clone was never a good fit for NBC, though, and it sat for years in development hell before executive Bob Greenblatt left for HBO, taking the project with him. The pandemic then delayed the show again, making it an entire decade from that 2012 announcement to the final product. Meanwhile, Fellowes attempted two other projects, Belgravia and The English Game, neither of which came close to capturing the Downton magic.
Those failures may explain the opening to The Gilded Age, which plays like Downton almost beat for beat. Instead of a train across the English countryside, horse-drawn carriages speed across a sheep-infested Central Park, and the mail arrives bearing bad news, not a telegram. But the downstairs scene in the kitchen between cook and butler could be Lesley Nichols’ Mrs. Patmore and Jim Carter’s Carson instead of Kristine Nielsen’s Mrs. Bauer and Simon Jones’ Bannister, and it would not make a difference.
The Gilded Age’s premiere runs nearly as long as the 90-minute PBS-edited version of Downton’s opening episode, a full hour and twenty minutes, creating the same sense of elongated introduction to the ensemble. The initial Cora-centric idea was abandoned for a more Shakespearean one, two houses, both alike in dignity, etc. In short order, viewers are introduced to them, sitting across the street next to Central Park. One is the long-established home of old-money widow Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and her spinster sister, Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon). The other is a just-built mansion moved into by the new-money Russells, George (Morgan Spector) and Bertha (Carrie Coon).
The show also introduces Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson). Her father, Henry, just inconveniently died, leaving her all of $30 and no choice but to leave her Pennsylvania home and throw herself upon the mercy of Aunts Agnes and Ada in NYC. Her late father’s lawyer, Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel), is a potential suitor. However, the Russells’ son Larry (Harry Richardson) is obviously love interest number two, despite his mother’s lofty ambitions to marry him to someone of higher stature like Caroline Astor (Amy Forsyth). Agnes’ son Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson) also seemed smitten by Marian, but the Matthew-and-Mary vibes are a deliberate red herring, as he’s in love with John Adams IV (Claybourne Elder).
However, despite his mother’s instant hatred of the new neighbors, Oscar recognizes that Gladys Russell (Taissa Farmiga) is the monetarily smart match. His predatory eye suggests he’ll be over there like a shot as soon as she makes her debut into society.
Bertha says she’s holding out on Gladys’ debut because it should be part of the Russells’ first official ball. However, Gladys may be in her mid-20s before that happens; Bertha is in for a rough ride to break into society. When she and Gladys attend the charity fundraiser held by Mrs. Fane (Kelli O’Hara), the hostess is almost comically terrified that someone will notice. Bertha’s open house is a disaster as nearly the whole of society ignores the invitations she spent hours personally delivering. At least Marian sneaks over to see the inside of the Russell house in a Beauty and the Beast-like ballgown, officially befriending both Larry and Gladys along the way.
Marian also picked up a BFF on the way to New York, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), who rescues Marian when her purse is stolen. There’s a (long needed) movement in period pieces to show the Black perspective. Peggy’s lead status puts The Gilded Age on the same footing as Sanditon, Grantchester, and others that have recognized these all-white worlds are historically false. Miss Scott’s role is also quickly upgraded from “random BFF people mistake for the maid” to “Agnes’ secretary” in less than 45 minutes, cementing the show’s plans to keep telling that story. It remains to be seen how comfortable the series is in going deep into this unexplored side of period dramas. However, the scene on the train and Peggy meeting her mother Dorothy (Audra McDonald) in an all-Black establishment gives hope The Gilded Age will screw its nerve to the sticking place and keep going.
But Miss Scott’s story also highlights an issue all shows that followed in Downton’s wake have struggled with: How to make people care about downstairs. Downton’s downstairs crew introduced the household through their eyes, so fans cared about them before they cared about upstairs. But this was a rare feat since most plot drivers come from above. Though the racist microaggressions Peggy encounters are far from easy to watch (and they’re not supposed to be), the scenes help immediately define the van Rhijn downstairs set for viewers through a set of eyes not usually given a perspective in these series. In contrast, the Russells’ downstairs team is far less interesting, a major letdown since the upstairs story on that side of the street is, so far, the far superior one.
- In most Fellowes’ stories, families like the Russells, the lot that buys it rather than inherits it, are the antagonists. But in American storytelling, especially in the post-Civil War period, it’s the capitalists who we revere. The tension between these competing dynamics is one of the things that makes this first episode tick.
- On that same note, Carrie Coons’ Bertha comes in like a Fellowes’ antagonist, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her as she runs into the societal brick wall by the end of the episode.
- You may or may not have picked up on the resemblance, but newcomer Louisa Jacobson is Meryl Streep’s daughter.
- I know I’m supposed to care about George’s train business, but currently, those scenes mainly exist so one can marvel about offices with six-foot-tall fireplaces.
- This show’s smart choice was to understand the character fans loved the most in Downton Abbey was the house itself. The swooping camera shots of the Russells’ wide curved staircases, gilt-edged paneled walls, massive crystal chandeliers, gorgeous stained glass windows, and the sumptuously upholstered furniture are *chef’s kiss*
- The van Rhijns’ house is less modernized and does not lend itself to quite the same period real estate porn. However, the camera takes every opportunity to frame the actors from a wider shot to afford viewers long looks at the bookcases, the well-turned furniture, and the portraiture that decorates the walls.
- My gods, these costumes. I would watch this for Bertha’s outfits alone.
- My sainted aunt, these HATS. I believe I may have died for the tall blue sail perched upon Carrie Coon’s updo.
- The show claims these houses are located at 5th Ave and 61st, but most street scenes were filmed upstate in Troy, NY, just outside Albany, and are CGI composites. Sorry, no Highclere Castle tours for this show.