There’s nothing like a sumptuous period drama to comfort and entertain — from Upstairs Downstairs to Bridgerton, the appeal of immersing oneself in the low-stakes shenanigans of a far-removed generation is timeless. While it lost its mojo in later seasons, one of the best of the bunch was the phenomenally successful Downton Abbey. Its creator Julian Fellowes is now back with The Gilded Age, which, while set a whole continent away in New York is, in many other aspects, very much Downton Abbey on the Hudson.
There’s also more than a whiff of (Edith) Wharton in the air, as Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), left impoverished by her father’s death, arrives from rural Pennsylvania to 1880s New York to live with her wealthy aunts, Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Miranda Nixon). Baranski and Nixon are excellent, as ever, and Jacobson holds her own, perhaps not surprising given she is from acting royalty herself, as the daughter of Hollywood’s reigning queen Meryl Streep.
The 'Gilded Age' of the title refers to the late 19th century period in the US when the economy boomed in cities such as New York, prompting huge changes in society, and a massive influx of immigrants.
Moving into a newly-built palatial residence across the avenue (Fifth, of course) are the arriviste Russells, setting up the age-old tussle between old money and new. Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) is determined to break into the upper echelons of New York society on the back of the money made from her husband’s ruthless business dealings but the old guard are proving resistant to change.
The signposting of the clash between old and new is relentlessly heavy-handed — when towards the end of the first episode, their architect assures the Russells that “you are the future and they are the past, that is what frightens them…” I had an urge to shout, ‘yes, I get it’.
A lot of the first episode is invested in exposition and character set-up so the ‘below stairs’ scenes don’t cohere as well as they did in Downton Abbey, but there is time for that to develop more. Set as it is almost two decades after the abolition of slavery in the US, it is also good to see the inclusion of a black character, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), an aspiring writer whose trajectory looks set to be an interesting one.
While so far it is missing some of the charm of Downton Abbey and the sheer novelty of Bridgerton, the Gilded Age has plenty to hold the attention and the plot developments come thick and fast towards the end of the first episode.
As her planned grand entrance to New York society flops like a soggy soufflé, Bertha Russell cries herself to sleep and vows revenge on those who have snubbed her. Meanwhile, her husband is up to all sorts of chicanery on the business front while the maid makes eyes at him. There’s plenty of bite left in this Big Apple.
- The Gilded Age is available on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW