The Gilded Age
~ A Capsule TV Review by Allen Kopp ~
The year is 1882. Mrs. Bertha Russell and her railroad tycoon husband, George Russell, have just built a gaudy new mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York. They represent the newly rich, or the nouveau riche. The Russells, especially Mrs. Russell, want to be accepted into the insular world of New York high society. This is the world that Henry James and Edith Wharton wrote about.
Right across Fifth Avenue from the Russells lives Mrs. Agnes Van Rhijn with her spinster sister, Ada. Mrs. Van Rhijn represents “old money” New York. She detests the Russells (and all they represent) and wants to keep them out of “her” world.
To celebrate the grand new house, Mrs. Russell gives a lavish reception, inviting all her Fifth Avenue neighbors. Hardly anybody attends. After instructing the servants to bag up all the food that wasn’t eaten, a disappointed Mrs. Russell vows to get revenge on New York high society. (“I’m not sure what New York’s poor will think of lobster salad,” Mr. Russell quips.) Mrs. Russell and Mrs. Van Rhijn across the street are set for an epic “battle of the bitches.”
Mrs. Van Rhijn’s niece, a “poor relation” named Marian Brook, has just arrived in New York to take up residence. She has no money and no job, so Mrs. Van Rhijn is obliged to take her in. Mrs. Van Rhijn doesn’t like Marian very much, but that’s all right because Mrs. Van Rhijn doesn’t like anybody very much. With Marian is a young black woman named Peggy Scott, whom she met while traveling to New York. Peggy has secretarial skills, so Mrs. Van Rhijn gives her employment and allows her to lodge in the servants’ quarters. It’s not going to be easy for Peggy to fit in with a bunch of white people, but her new friend Marian will smooth the way for her.
All right, already, after only one episode, we see a number of cliches, (not to mention some stilted dialogue), but The Gilded Age on HBO is so much fun and so beautiful to look at that we don’t mind these little shortcomings. If you are a fan of the British series, Downton Abbey, you’ll probably want to see The Gilded Age because both series have a lot in common, including a handsome gay man who doesn’t seem to be gay, servants’ lives intersecting with the lives of their employers, lavish sets and costumes, and meticulous attention to period detail. Both series were created by a British writer named Julian Fellowes. The Gilded Age is in a lot of ways like an American Downton Abbey.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp