Premiering on Monday, The Gilded Age, this HBO period drama created and written by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), begins in 1882. We follow Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), who decides to move to New York City to live with her aunts, Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), after her father dies. The central tension focuses on the class anxiety felt by old money New Yorkers like van Rhijn and new money folks like George and Bertha Russell (Morgan Spector, Carrie Coon), who live in a palatial home right across the street. The Russells are loaded with cash and initially try charming their way into high society before choosing to take what they believe they’re entitled to by force.
Like a lot of period dramas, this one is very white, but there’s an interesting storyline that centers on Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a Black woman who is an aspiring writer. Peggy’s life becomes entangled with Marian’s after the latter is robbed at the Pennsylvania train station and loses her ticket in the process. Peggy buys Marian a ticket home and both arrive in New York in a carriage meant only for Black passengers. The show really excels at highlighting myriad class struggles and, surprisingly, doesn’t rely on lazy storytelling when it comes to its Black characters. The great Audra McDonald is fantastic as Peggy’s mother, Dorothy Scott. The show is also very funny too, seamlessly going from darker subject matter to things of lighter fare. Baranski’s snobbish Agnes has a lot of great one-liners that will leave you in stitches. “I am not concerned with facts, not if they interfere with my beliefs,” she says in Episode 2.
The Gilded Age has a slow start, but the stakes really explode in the second and third episodes, and many characters bypass conventional storytelling tropes, making for a richer narrative. Based on the five episodes made available to critics, I can promise you, it’s the good stuff. —Michael Blackmon