Downton Abbey’s American cousin

By Richard Roeper on January 26, 2022

From January of 2011 through March of 2016, legions of faithful American fans of Downton Abbey tuned in to PBS every Sunday night to revel in the upstairs-downstairs adventures of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, their immediate and extended family and friends, and, of course, the equally compelling staffers at the great Yorkshire country estate. We enjoyed the 2019 film, and we're looking forward to another Downton movie later this year - but if only we could somehow get a new historical drama brimming with colorful characters, juicy melodrama and lavish production values including amazing period-piece costumes and sets.

Says Julian Fellowes: Hold my chandelier.

It'll be Monday nights instead of Sunday nights, and HBO instead of PBS, but the man behind Downton Abbey has now gifted us with The Gilded Age, an instantly addictive, beautifully appointed and well-acted period-piece soaper set during the explosion of wealth and growth in New York City in 1882. This series is brimming with an ensemble equal to Downton in numbers and potentially matching the dramatic richness of that unforgettable group.

As for the obvious Downton similarities, are you ready?

The Gilded Age features a Dowager Countess-esque socialite who sits in dry judgment of everything she witnesses; a scheming, double-crossing staffer a la Mister Barrow; upper-crust women involved in charitable endeavors, including the Red Cross; a veteran, all-knowing butler who frowns upon gossip in the kitchen; wealthy characters donning formalwear for each and every dinner; seemingly well-off individuals who are actually facing possible financial ruin; a mother-daughter-type dynamic between two kitchen staffers, reminiscent of Mrs. Patmore and Daisy - and we could go on, but you get the idea. The Gilded Age has no direct connection to Downton Abbey, but it feels like a kind of American cousin, and given it is set in the early 1880s, maybe a 40ish Violet Crawley will make the trip across the pond at some point! (Probably not, but why not?)

I've seen the first five (of nine) episodes of The Gilded Age, and while some characters are introduced in indelible fashion and instantly recognizable thereafter, I was at least a couple of chapters in before I had everyone sorted out, as there's a wide array of central players and supporting contributors from Manhattan to Brooklyn and beyond. Our saga kicks off with the smart and warmhearted but unsophisticated and suddenly destitute Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson, daughter of Meryl Streep) taking the train from Pennsylvania to New York to live with her old-money aunts: Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), a rigid, wealthy widow who greets everything new and different with suspicion, and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), a kindly spinster whose best friend is her loyal pup, Pumpkin, aw. Marian has made a new friend on the journey: Peggy (Denee Benton), an aspiring writer who is offered a job as Agnes' secretary and gladly takes it, as she is estranged from her upper-class, Brooklyn-based parents.

Agnes and Ada and now Marian and Peggy and the relatively small staff live in a tastefully decorated, expansive home on Fifth Avenue - but it's a tiny dwelling compared to the massive and garish and brand-new mansion across the way, where the obscenely wealthy "new money" Russells live, with railroad robber baron George (Morgan Spector) almost gleefully ruining lives as he schemes his next venture, while his wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon), desperately tries to claw her way into society.

Carrie Coon is a scene-stealing treasure as the nakedly ambitious Bertha, who wears one over-the-top gown after another and seethes with resentment whenever she feels slighted by high society, which is virtually every day.

Early episodes bring in a wealth of interesting characters, including the snooty upper-crust Mrs. Fane and Mrs. Morris, played by Kelli O'Hara and Katie Finneran, respectively, and the gatekeeper for all things social, one Ward McAllister, played with hammy verve by the great Nathan Lane. Meanwhile, in the kitchen and in the hallways, Simon Jones is a standout as the Carson-like butler, Bannister; Kristine Nielsen is memorable as Mrs. Bauer, a German immigrant and cook with a kindly heart, and Taylor Richardson is heartbreaking as a housemaid with a tragic past. (We could name at least a half-dozen equally interesting characters.)

Each episode pops with eye-catching practical sets combined with seamless CGI and crackles with crisp exchanges, as when Agnes discloses how her money will be dispersed after she is gone and her sister Ada frets, "What will happen to me?" and Agnes dryly retorts, "Oh, don't worry about that, I will outlive you."

Oooh, that Agnes. She's the worst. Except for when she's the best. Hardly anybody in The Gilded Age is as pure, or as dark, as they initially appear to be. That's what makes them all so intriguing.

The Gilded Age

Three and a half stars

Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon and Carrie Coon

Episodes air Mondays on HBO and stream afterwards on HBO Max