Julian Fellowes created a literary fantasia with “Downton Abbey,” building his own early-20th-century British universe by repurposing many of the tropes and character types from various classic novels.
The British writer-producer takes the same approach with “The Gilded Age,” his irresistible new series on HBO. He gives us the rapidly changing world of 1880s New York City, with a cutthroat pack of old-money snobs — led by Christine Baranski’s droll dowager — who turn up their noses at and lock their drawing rooms against the nouveau riche and their loose spending habits. He gathers together bits of Edith Wharton, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, and others, and deploys them in service of his own smart, sly, and delectably soapy storytelling purposes.
But of course you don’t need to know anything at all about literature to sink into “The Gilded Age,” which premieres Monday at 9 p.m. It’s an elegantly told, gorgeously designed, and finely acted tale that, like “Downton,” gives us a front-row seat to the slow collision between musty old manners and messier human instincts. As always, if you’re not a fan of costume dramas, and the indirections of more repressed times, and the plight of ambitious women in a world of oppressive men, you have no business here.
In the first episode, Baranski’s aristocratic Agnes van Rhijn plainly states her point of view, which doubles as the prime mover behind much of the show’s drama: “Never the new,” she says to her just arrived and somewhat naive niece, Marian (Louisa Jacobson), who’s looking for friends.
Agnes despises anything that threatens the established social order, specifically her new neighbors, the Russells, who’ve made millions and built a palace that she finds vulgar. In a typical Fellowes move, Agnes is not a straight-up villain; she lavishes her niece, homeless and poor after the death of her father, with affection and clothes. And she hires Marian’s new friend, a young Black woman named Peggy (Denée Benton), to be her secretary, because she admires Peggy’s willpower. But she’s stubborn and, like Maggie Smith’s dowager countess on “Downton,” she’s definitely going to be challenged along the way.
Agnes is up against formidable foes when it comes to the Russells, who’ve risen through pure grit. George (Morgan Spector) is a classic robber baron, a railroad tycoon who’s always a few steps ahead of his more ethical competitors. The single-minded Bertha, brilliantly played with a class-based chip on her shoulder by Carrie Coon, is consumed with breaking into high society and dominating its mean girls, fully aware she’ll need to force open the doors. Coon gives her an assertive voice that’s simultaneously sardonic and scheming. Bertha tries to control the attractions of her two young-adult children, Larry (Harry Richardson) and Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), so their marriages will benefit her class struggle. But they — like Marian across the street — feel no fervor when it comes to choosing standing over love. Marian and Larry certainly seem drawn to each other, but then Marian has another suitor, a fast-moving lawyer who is either a hero or a cad.
Yes, in some ways “The Gilded Age” is simply “Downton” goes to New York City, but there’s a distinctively American flavor to the slightly more porous class barriers, and to the way the Russells realistically believe that they can buy their way into the gentry.
In what has now become standard in period dramas, “The Gilded Age” also travels downstairs, to tell a few stories about the help. On “Downton,” Fellowes pulled it off beautifully; here, he hasn’t quite found a compelling way into the servants’ domain and their personal issues. There is one heavenly scene in the fourth episode (I’ve seen five of the nine) when the Russells’ and the Van Rhijns’ head butlers meet and, with surgical cattiness, compare notes. And one of the Russells’ maids appears to be after her boss, George, a plot that could gain momentum and complexity. But there are a lot of balls in the air in “The Gilded Age,” and Fellowes isn’t quite a master of them all yet.
In service of another trend in period shows, Fellowes occasionally looks back at the era from a contemporary perspective, also with uneven results. Peggy is an important element in the mix, and her story line, about her efforts to be published and her fraught relationship with her parents, brings the show into the Black middle class of the time. It’s not a colorblind fantasy, like “Bridgerton”; there are a number of scenes in which white people are seen sneering at her and worse. In one scene, Peggy becomes impatient with Marian’s lack of racial awareness, telling her, “Stop thinking you’re really my friend.” But it nonetheless all feels unlikely and somewhat forced onto the context of the show. On the other hand, the presence of the show’s closeted gay character fits in naturally.
Baranski is, as usual, extraordinary, effortlessly holding the center. Blake Ritson is perfectly mischievous as her son, Oscar, and Cynthia Nixon makes naivete work as Agnes’s never-married sister, Ada, who is dependent on her wealth. The large cast also includes welcome appearances by Audra McDonald as Peggy’s mother, Donna Murphy as the prominent Mrs. Astor, and Bill Irwin as a man from Ada’s past. And Coon and Spector stand out as the interlopers, a mover and a shakedown artist, respectively, a pair of go-getters unaware that their lavish home is a cold, hollow exercise in desperation.
THE GILDED AGE
Starring: Christine Baranski, Louisa Jacobson, Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector, Cynthia Nixon, Denée Benton, Taissa Farmiga, Blake Ritson, Harry Richardson, Simon Jones, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Thomas Cocquerel, Jack Gilpin, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy, Michael Cerveris
On: HBO. Premieres Monday at 9 p.m.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.