Television Review: Gilded Age Season 1

For all its frustrating flaws, I remain a big Downton Abbey fan. When it was really at its best, it was a delight to watch how different classes lived and interacted in areas that seemed commonplace to them, but were anything but to me, a middle-class white guy in 21st century Maine. (Of course, there were the other plot lines that focused instead on bizarre things like murder investigations, which always just seemed so idiotic. But let’s not talk of those.)

So when I heard Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, had created a show around late nineteenth century America, I was intrigued to say the least. The Gilded Age was on HBO, though, and I wondered it they’d just take Downton and give it an “adult” twist. It was TV-MA, after all, but Denisa and I decided to give the first episode a shot. We blazed through the rest of the season soon after, finishing the final episode last night.

Like Downton, it follows people of multiple classes, from servants to the middle class to the noveau riche and the established families. It adds in a Black character as well, allowing the show to explore race relations back then. The central plot is how the Russell family moves to New York City and tries to insert itself into the established upper crust circles. The Russells are filthy rich. The husband is a railroad tycoon, and quite ruthless in business, though he’s much nicer when it comes to personal matters. His wife, on the other hand, is desperate to be accepted by the upper crust, and the upper crust are just as set on ignoring her. Drama ensues.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. The TV-MA rating is a bit baffling. Over the course of the entire season, there was one risque scene, and one scene with brief nudity that had no real reason to be there. It was almost like HBO told Fellowes they wanted the show to have a TV-MA rating so that people would take it seriously, so he threw in a short scene to justify it. You can skip those parts easily and not miss anything significant.

It’s well plotted, avoiding some of the obvious lines that it could have taken, so that you’re never entirely sure what will happen with any of the stories. I won’t go into spoilers, but there was one plot that seemed very clear would go one way, but then when the time came to go that way, it veered off in an unexpected, refreshing direction instead.

It’s well acted, though most of it is “stuffy nineteenth century,” which feels a lot like Downton. Trying to convey the whole range of emotions in people who made it a point never to show emotion is a trick and a half, but the show pulls it off.

But really, the star of the show is the set design and costuming. It’s simply a pleasure to look at, one scene after the other. The time period comes alive in a way Downton Abbey never really was able to pull off. We see different parts of New York, and the city itself feels far more alive than Downton ever really got. In that show, you’d have the village life come up now and then, but the city plays just as much a part of this as the characters do.

Overall, I gave it a 9/10. It’s not necessarily for everyone, but if it’s for you, you likely already know it after reading this, and you should give it a shot if you have HBOmax. Any of you already seen it?


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