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The Gilded Age review: A Downton-esque delight with a 19th century New York twist

While it strikes a similar tone to Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey and Belgravia, The Gilded Age enters new territory with its exploration of the rivalry between New York's socialites.

The Gilded Age review
Published: Thursday, 20th January 2022 at 2:30 pm
A star rating of 4 out of 5.

There's no denying that Brits love a costume drama. Downton Abbey was one of the most-watched scripted shows of 2010 in the UK, raking in numerous awards across the globe during its five-year run, while series like Peaky Blinders, Outlander and the roaring success of Netflix's Bridgerton prove the appetite for TV stars in historical garb is still there.

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It was therefore only a matter of time before HBO ventured into the territory of debutante balls, forbidden courtships and 19th century frocks with The Gilded Age – the broadcaster's latest series, helmed by period drama kingpin Julian Fellowes.

Set in 1880s New York City, The Gilded Age follows Marian Brook (played by newcomer Louisa Jacobson), a young woman from Pennsylvania who must move to the city to live with her old money aunts after the death of her retired Union general father. With New York in the midst of huge industrial and economic growth, Marian is soon caught between in a social war between her snobbish aunt Agnes (Christine Baranski) and their new money neighbours – railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his determined wife Bertha (Carrie Coon).

The nine-part drama follows a similar framework to that of Fellowes' previous series in that it revolves around a large cast of characters, all differing in class and social status, whose stories are slowly unravelled at a pace better suited to a Sunday night watch.

The Gilded Age
HBO

There's the stern Agnes van Rhijn – a proud socialite intent on upholding traditional values and only mixing in old money circles – played by The Good Wife's Christine Baranski. Her performance is complimented by Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon, who plays her spinster sister Ada Brook – a kind-hearted optimist who allows their niece Marian more freedom.

They're joined in the van Rhijn household by Peggy Scott (Broadway star Denée Benton) a Black writer who comes to Marian's aid when her train ticket is stolen and is soon hired by Agnes to be her secretary, and Oscar (Upstairs Downstairs' Blake Ritson) – Agnes' quick-witted bachelor son who harbours a closely-held secret and wants to get to know their new-moneyed neighbours despite his mother's stubborn unwillingness.

While The Gilded Age is almost identical in tone to historical dramas like Downton Abbey and Belgravia, its exploration of the rivalry between Manhattan's upper class and the recently wealthy tycoons of the industrial world is what sets it apart from Fellowes' previous works. This backdrop of social gatekeeping fuels the frustration of ambitious housewife Bertha Russell (Fargo's Carrie Coon), who is desperate to be seen as a member of New York's high society but is constantly rebuffed by her old money neighbours.

The series also makes the excellent choice to include an actor of colour in its main cast, with Hamilton's Benton brilliant in the role of Peggy – a member of the Black middle class who is employed and respected by Agnes and Ada, but treated poorly by a few members of their prejudiced staff. A character whose perspective is rarely explored in period dramas, Peggy's career ambitions and family relationships are dug into throughout the series and hopefully her story arc will remind writers that non-white voices can be easily included in historical shows such as these.

With an extensive cast of talented actors, elegant writing with a hint of humour and social dynamics to dig into, The Gilded Age harnesses the best of Fellowes' writing and applies it to American history. While slow at points, this HBO drama is set to be a hit with Downton fans and while not as saucy as Bridgerton, The Gilded Age will certainly appeal to the romantics out there.

The Gilded Age arrives on Sky Atlantic and NOW on 25th January. Find out more about how to sign up for Sky TV here.

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