There goes the neighborhood.
That’s how haughty widow Agnes van Rhijn (the marvelous Christine Baranski), ensconced in her Fifth Avenue mausoleum of a mansion, regards the unwelcome arrival across the street of the nouveau riche Russells in their spectacular new palace. George (Morgan Spector) is a ruthless railroad magnate, and wife Bertha (The Leftovers’ crisp Carrie Coon) doesn’t even try to hide her desire to enter the highest ranks of elite society: “Why shouldn’t we be members? I’m tired of letting all those dull and stupid women dictate the way we live our lives.”
It’s no accident that Agnes often sounds like she’s channeling Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey: Of the Russells’ overprotected daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), she sniffs, “Do people like that bring their daughters out? I thought they just sold them to the highest bidder.” Like Downton, this series is the witty and immediately addictive creation of Julian Fellowes, who has lost none of his gift for enchanting viewers with the foibles of the well born and the underclass in a rapidly changing world.
The servants (many played, like others in the supporting cast, by Broadway royalty) are less richly developed than in Downton. And with the exception of Spector as the confidently calculating George Russell, and Nathan Lane in a drawling cameo as society gatekeeper Ward McAllister, the men in this story are mostly bland window dressing. But what windows!
A triumph of dazzling production and costume design, The Gilded Age astonishes with its opulence and entertains with its colorful depiction of class warfare in corsets. Like E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, but with a lighter touch, the series mingles actual historical figures with these intoxicating new creations.
“Defeat is not your color,” George tells Bertha, who refuses to give up despite meeting stiff resistance in her determination to buy her way into a rigid hierarchy, using causes like the fledgling Red Cross as a stepping stone—hey, isn’t that Clara Barton? “I don’t think we should be afraid of new things, or new people,” she tells the startled hens at a charity meeting.
Those who agree tend to be enlightened youth like Marian Brook (winsome Louisa Jacobson), the orphaned niece who becomes our guide to the era when she goes to live with Aunt Agnes and her fluttery spinster sister, Ada (Cynthia Nixon, recalling the poignant role that won her a Tony in the 2017 revival of The Little Foxes). Marian befriends aspiring Black writer Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), another sign that times are changing.
But please let modernity take its time. This Age is much too much fun to rush.
The Gilded Age, Series Premiere, Monday, January 24, 9/8c, HBO