Review of the lavish historic HBO period drama, ‘The Gilded Age’

April 5, 2022 Mario Bautista 416 views

Gilded1Gilded2WE’VE stopped watching limited TV series as we can feel they’re just being padded and bloated to stretch the usual 9 to 10 episodes. But we’re back to watching a series because of British writer Jullian Fellowes, whose work we’ve admired since he wrote “Gosford Park” in 2002, a whodunit satire about wealthy Britons who live upstairs and their servants who live downstairs, for which he won the Oscar best original screenplay award.

He followed this up with the hit TV series, “Downton Abbey”, which ran for six seasons and was also made into a hit movie. He now comes up with “The Gilded Age”, this time set in America, about wealthy New Yorkers and their servants in the 1880s, the so-called Gilded Age.

This is the period of economic boom from the late 1800s to the the turn of the century. The term is from a book of Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age” that came out in 1873.

The show centers on two families. The Van Rhijns who represent the aristocratic old rich and the Russells who represent the upstart nouveau riche. The head of the former is the acerbic and sarcastic Agnes Van Rhijn (perfectly played by Christine Baranski, the counterpart of Maggie Smith in “Downton”), a moneyed widow with a closeted son, Oscar (Blake Ritson.) Her younger sister Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) lives with her.

The new rich is personified by Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), married to wealthy industrialist George (Morgan Spector), and they have two kids: Larry (Harry Richardson, who had a bigger part in Fellowes’ “Doctor Thorne”) and Gladys (Taissa Farmiga). They just moved to their new and lavishly designed mansion. The Van Rhjins and the Russells just live across the street from each other in Fifth Avenue, Central Park East.

Acting as a catalyst between them is Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson, the youngest daughter of Meryl Streep.) Marian is the daughter of the estranged brother of Agnes and Ada. They live in Pennsylvania and now that her dad has died and left her impoverished, she is forced to live with her aunts in New York. Marian’s love interest is Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel), the dashing lawyer in Pennsylvania who helped her then follows her to New York.

She soon learns about the harsh realities of life in high society. Her Aunt Agnes feels she’s a cut above the rest as their family has always belonged to the upper crust of true blue socialites and snubs the Russells for being inferior social climbers.

Another important character is Peggy Scott (Denee Benton), a highly educated black girl and aspiring writer who comes from a fairly well off family in Brooklyn. But she’s estranged from her very controlling father. She helps Marian at the train station in Pennsylvania when a group of thugs stole Marian’s money and train ticket. Marian later asks her to stay with her family and her Aunt Agnes eventually hires her as a secretary.

The show is mainly about Bertha’s attempts to get into high society and how the obstinate old ladies there resist her. She has to buy her way in while her husband George is ganged up on by the husbands of the uppity ladies to put him out of business with their insider trading schemes. But he certainly is more crafty and knows how to put one over them.

Part of the show’s pleasure is watching Bertha worm her way up the society ladder. When she hosted such a grand dinner where nobody came, she vows revenge. In a charity bazaar, she offers her ballroom to be used as the venue but again, she is snubbed and the antagonistic organizers who resist change choose to hold it in a hotel instead. She then goes to the bazaar with George and her husband buys all the things being sold, ending the event immediately.

Another delightful element in the show is the outstanding casting. It has a very big and varied cast to show what class bias is, but everyone is just perfectly cast, from the leads up to the servants who tend to them.

These are Simon Jones as Bannister, the Van Rhijns’ butler; Jack Gilpin as Church, the Russell’s butler; Audra McDonald and John Thompson as Peggy’s parents; Jeanne Tripplehorn as Mrs. Chamberlain, an outcast who helps Marian; Kelley Curran as Turner, Bertha’s scheming personal maid who seduces her husband George; Nathan Lane as the social butterfly Ward MacAllister whose opinion is highly regarded; Douglas Sills as Bertha’s French chef who has a big secret; and many more.

Some of them are given their own back stories, like Debra Monk as Armstrong, Van Rhijn’s lady maid who turns out to be nursing a sick old mother, but they’re not properly pursued and just left hanging in the air. There’s enough plot strands here to launch more episodes of gossipy soap opera, like the subplot about gay lovers who keep their relationship a secret. We heard they’re now doing Season 2.

Carrie Coon is delicious as the cunning social climber who launches a class revolution to bulldoze her way into a circle that doesn’t want her. Christine Baranski (a favorite since we saw her in “The Good Wife”) inhabits her role as a champion of the upper crust with aplomb, throwing away her sharp one-liners with glee.

This is a big break for Louisa Jacobson who has a winning screen presence as the pretty blonde, progressive minded ingenue. She has two older sisters, Mamie and Grace, who also went into acting, but they’ve never gotten a role as big as Louisa’s Marian in “The Gilded Age”. Will it be Louisa who’d follow in their mom’s footsteps as a multi-Oscar winner? We don’t know. Meryl Streep is really one tough act to follow.

The production design is a glittering feast for the eyes, with lavish sets, fabulous costumes, magnificent hats, and oh those numerous street scenes with hundreds of costumed people and horse drawn carriages hovering in the background. Maybe some of them were done through CGI, we don’t know, but it all looks very eye-poppingly convincing. Needless to say, we really enjoyed the series and its smartly written characters who get us invested in their plight as the old and the new intersect in New York’s social hierarchy. It really works for us. This is definitely better than Fellowes’ last two mini-series, “Doctor Thorne” and “Belgravia”.