In Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, the narrative was divided along lines of class: the aristocratic Crawley family upstairs, and their loyal servants downstairs. Fellowes’ new series, The Gilded Age, also includes both servants and their rich and powerful employers, but the story is instead split along a different type of class divide: old money versus new money in 1880s New York, with the chief conflict coming between those who have always had wealth and status, and those who have recently acquired the former and want to buy their way into the latter.
There’s a similar push and pull going on outside The Gilded Age‘s stories. Fellowes has moved his trademark fascination with the lives of turn-of-the-century blue bloods from PBS to HBO. For much of the 20th century, PBS represented the most noble and artistically high-minded form of television, even if much of its scripted content was, like Downton, imported from the United Kingdom. In this century, that mantle has been taken by HBO — though in recent years the pay-cable giant has had to share the acclaim and awards with streaming rivals who smell of new money in their own way. Meanwhile, PBS has ambled along like always, presenting solid (and sometimes much better than that) work, but rarely breaking into the zeitgeist as it once did. (The success of Downton when it debuted here in 2011 was startling because it had been so long since public television had the show everyone was talking about.)
In this gilded television age of a million viewing options and voice-activated TV remotes that will conjure up any show you want regardless of where it originally debuted, this jump from public television to pay cable may seem like a distinction without a difference. But the old-versus-new-money differences and tensions within The Gilded Age can prove equally elusive. It is a show where the stakes can feel terribly small, even though the acting and production values are fabulous enough to conceal the problem for many scenes.
We begin in 1882, back when sheep still grazed in Central Park, the Statue of Liberty’s torch was on display in Manhattan because there wasn’t enough money to send it to France to be attached to Lady Liberty’s arm, and the city was still the fiefdom of old swells whose families allegedly came over on the Mayflower. Where Downton Abbey had its one house, this show offers two, located across the street from one another at the corner of 61st Street and Fifth Avenue. One is an old and well-appointed brownstone occupied by the widow Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and her spinster sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon). Agnes proudly stands up for the values of an American ruling class dating back to before the revolt against England. The other is a mammoth white palace, newly built according to the desires and specifications of Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), and financed by her railroad tycoon husband George (Morgan Spector), as the first step in Bertha’s campaign to crowbar her way into high society by any means necessary.
To that core foursome, the show adds several adult children (two for the Russells, one for Agnes); Agnes’ newly-destitute niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson) and Marian’s new Black friend Peggy Scott (Denée Benton); Peggy’s parents (Audra McDonald and John Douglas Thompson); a dozen or so prominent servants (many of them played by theater stars like Michael Cerveris and Deborah Monk); and various crucial figures of the social scene (again, often played by Broadway standouts like Kelli O’Hara and Katie Finneran), whom Bertha Russell would love to befriend, if only they would let her join in any of their reindeer games. Between the sheer number of characters, the lavish costumes, and the scale of the production — with many events taking place outdoors in sumptuous recreations of various 19th-century New York locations — it’s far more ambitious than anything Fellowes tried with Downton, but at times more ungainly, too. The servants barely have anything to do, for instance, and it can be hard to keep track of various relationships and feuds among this huge cast.
The main issue, though, comes from Fellowes’ difficulty articulating the cultural divide between the Russells and the van Rhijns, as well as why Bertha is so desperate to leap across it. For as much as Agnes and all her chums talk about the gauche disreputability of the Russells, the show struggles to dramatize this in any meaningful way. There’s a scene in one episode where Agnes’ faithful butler, Bannister (Simon Jones), visits the house across the street and offers his counterpart, Church (Jack Gilpin), a lesson in the proper way to set a table in the English tradition, like placing the various dinner glasses in a square rather than a straight line. This is how minute the differences from one house to the other can feel throughout. Bertha, meanwhile, continually ducks questions from George and others about her eagerness to gain the acceptance of people who look at her like something they regret having stepped in, insisting only that she has her reasons, and a very specific plan to accomplish her goal. There’s a way in which it should feel universal to desire entrance to a club that wants no part of your membership, yet the only reason Bertha’s quest makes emotional sense at all is that Coon is one of the best actors alive (as anyone who watched her on The Leftovers knows). She instills her otherwise enigmatic character with a deep humanity that almost turns her into the underdog despite her family’s vast fortune and the ruthless ways in which George uses it(*).
(*) George’s antiheroic tendencies place him closest to what we might expect from an HBO drama, but Morgan Spector seems much more comfortable in scenes where the character is doting on his wife versus when he’s taking pleasure in ruining his competitors (often on her behalf). In general, the male characters lag badly in entertainment value behind the women.
For that matter, Baranski works wonders at conveying the inborn disdain Agnes has for people like the Russells, even when the scripts portray them as more or less the same. This is something of the point of the endeavor — when the more progressive Marian tries speaking up on behalf of the Russells, Agnes replies, “I’m not concerned with facts, not if they interfere with my beliefs” — but one that would work better in a pure satire than in this mostly soapy tale with periodic Baranski zingers. (Nixon’s lines are deliberately not as sharp — Ada is sweet and deferential where her sister is imperious and blunt — but it’s a charming and welcome change of pace from the story she’s stuck with elsewhere in the HBO empire, on And Just Like That…)
The question of why viewers should emotionally invest in a feud between two spectacularly rich people is one TV has wrestled with for generations. Recent shows like Succession and Billions have answered it by being so funny and propulsive that the lack of someone to root for becomes irrelevant, while Downton both split time between the masters and servants and portrayed the Crawleys as good-hearted employers. Gilded Age has some of this — Agnes is always at her most human when interacting with Peggy, whom she hires as a secretary — without being consistently witty enough to compensate in other areas.
Part of the issue is that Americans in general have never been as fixated on class as they are on race. Wisely, Fellowes devotes a lot of time to Peggy’s assimilation into the van Rhijn household, to her desire to build a career as a reporter and author in spite of the barriers created by her skin color and gender, and to her estrangement from her parents, who turn out to be quite well-to-do themselves. That last development is a smart way to acknowledge how race ultimately trumps class here, as we see Peggy repeatedly dismissed or scorned by white people of both high and low status. But whenever we shift from Peggy to any of the other regular characters, the drama instantly feels much skimpier, despite the high caliber of the performers and performances.
The Gilded Age was actually first developed for NBC, and when then-network boss Robert Greenblatt bolted for a job running HBO, he took the show with him as a pet project. Fellowes hasn’t suddenly gone full Bada-Bing here: Outside of one brief nude scene, there’s little he couldn’t have done, content-wise, on a broadcast network. The episodes are longer — the premiere is 80 minutes, and most of the others hover close to 60 — and the scope of the period recreations is more along the lines of Rome or Deadwood than what NBC might have paid for. But on the whole, Fellowes is telling stories in the same fashion he did on Downton, with many of the new characters having relatively neat analogues on the former show. (Agnes’ one-liners and demeanor bring to mind the Dowager Countess, while her scheming son Oscar, played by Blake Ritson, has more than a little DNA in common with troublemaking under-butler Thomas Barrow.) Director Michael Engler, himself a Downton alum, remains fond of filming characters from behind as they move from one part of each house to another, the better to make the viewer feel transported to these old and beautiful locations.
For fans of Downton Abbey — a show so beloved around the world that it has now produced two spin-off feature films — this could well prove a feature rather than a bug. It’s at this point I should confess to being a Downton agnostic who much preferred the servants’ stories to that of the nobles. But there was also an elegant simplicity to how Fellowes structured his prior show versus the messy sprawl of this new one. And I have to wonder if the Downton die-hards will look at The Gilded Age the way Bannister looks at the arrangement of those faintly misplaced dinner glasses: as something that should be perfectly pleasing, but that doesn’t look quite right to the trained eye.
The Gilded Age premieres Jan. 24 on HBO, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first five of nine episodes.