‘The Gilded Age’ fills a ‘Downton Abbey’ sized hole in my heart

By Janie Walenda

My first introduction to the wide world of television beyond children’s cartoons came in the form of a “Downton Abbey” marathon. My family was staying at my Gran’s for Christmas, and I shared a room with her. She always watches television at night, and this Christmas there happened to be a “Downton Abbey” marathon running. I was thrown into the middle of season two, and from that moment, I was hooked.

Flash forward to 2022, when “The Gilded Age”, a new show by “Downton Abbey’s” creator Julian Fellowes, started airing. I first heard about it due to the amount of Broadway stars in the cast, and while I was intrigued, I quickly put it out of my mind as I didn’t have access to what was then called HBOMax where the show is housed. 

As I was flying back from Christmas break this January, and as I gave up on a film that was far too good for my sleep-deprived brain to appreciate, I saw that season one of “The Gilded Age” was available on the airplane. One nine-hour flight later, I was nearly finished with season one, and my mom convinced my dad to get HBOMax, now called Max, for a month as I was hooked on another lush and entertaining historical drama.

“The Gilded Age” follows the clash of old money and new money in 1880s New York, with the van Rhijn family representing the old guard and the Russel family as their constant adversary. While a lot of the series is reminiscent of “Downton Abbey,” familiar formulas are kept fresh by dividing them across the two families.

Where would a Julian Fellowes historical drama be without an incredibly sarcastic matriarch?

The van Rhijns are the equivalent of the Crowley family from “Downton Abbey” as they fight to maintain their way of life and find their footing in an ever-changing world. The family is anchored by a fantastically cantankerous Christine Baranski as Agnes Van Rhijn, the matriarch of the family who dedicates her time to keeping her family within suitable social circles. Her efforts are not unnecessary, as her sister Ada, son Oscar and niece Marian each show a willingness to break societal norms. 

The most unexpected member of the van Rjihn household, however, is Peggy Scott, played by Deneé Benton. After helping Marian out of a tricky situation, Peggy works as Agnes’s secretary while also pursuing her dreams of journalism. Peggy’s complicated relationship with her family and her past, as well as her journey as a young black woman in 1880s New York, is one of the most compelling of the show.

The Russells are the reigning champions of disrupting New York society and looking fashionable while doing so

The real stars of the show, however, are the Russells. Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) is determined to break into high society, no matter the cost. The cost is rarely an issue, thanks to industrialist George Russell (Morgan Spector), who might not always understand why his wife is determined to break into the old money crowd but is always willing to back her up. Watching them scheme their way through New York society is the highlight of the show, and their relationship is a perfect balance of realistic yet dramatic conflict and wholehearted love and support.

One of “The Gilded Age’s” best accomplishments is how well it balances numerous characters and storylines. Every recurring character gets a story arc at some point, building up to a massive, complex supporting cast. Likewise, the overarching plot of each season is built up of numerous smaller storylines, which makes it all the more satisfying when they all collide. Any show that makes me cheer about the opening night of an opera house like it’s the final battle of an action film is a show that I’ll keep watching. 

 “The Gilded Age” is entertaining from beginning to end, regardless of how much plot actually occurs in any given episode. Make no mistake, this is ultimately a show of well-dressed people sitting and talking, walking and talking or, on special occasions, dancing and talking. It borrows plenty from “Downton Abbey,” and whether that’s grating or gratifying will depend on the viewer. For fans of historical dramas, “The Gilded Age” is suitably good-looking, entertaining and twisty enough to be worth a watch. And for non-fans, it entirely depends on how much you’re willing to care about the guest list for a dinner party.

“The Gilded Age” seasons one and two are streaming on Max.

Janie Walenda is a junior Global Business major and the A&E editor for Cedars. She is overly passionate about animation, caffeine and weirdly enough Dracula.

Images courtesy of HBO.

2 Replies to "‘The Gilded Age’ fills a ‘Downton Abbey’ sized hole in my heart"

  • comment-avatar
    Sandra Bainey January 26, 2024 (7:37 am)

    We need more Juliian Fellowes in this world. Can’t get enough of the story’s he brings to life. His novels are the same way. Absolutely Brilliant.

  • comment-avatar
    Lin January 26, 2024 (1:38 pm)

    It’s a great show. The behavior of citizens back then, the racism, the abundance of servants. The snooty people, I love the overwhelming status quo.
    I am waiting on Season 3! With bated breath

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