TV review: ‘The Gilded Age’ not quite as grand as ‘Downton Abbey’ but still an entertaining watch

I love British period dramas almost as much as I love Star Wars – and believe me, that’s saying something. The period drama closest to my heart is Downton Abbey, and since the series wrapped in 2016 here in the U.S., I’ve been looking for other shows to fill that void. 

The Gilded Age, streaming now on HBO Max, checks a lot of the same boxes. It features a lavish historical setting – although this time across the pond, in 1880s New York City. It’s written and produced by Julian Fellowes, who also created Downton Abbey, and includes some of the same upstairs/downstairs drama. 

Although I’m hooked now on The Gilded Age, it took me a while to warm up to this show – definitely longer than Downton Abbey, which charmed me right away. The characters aren’t quite as compelling, and the downstairs drama isn’t as interesting as everything going on upstairs (which is a shame because one of the things I loved most about Downton Abbey is that the servants were portrayed as characters of the same level of importance as the wealthy family they were employed by). 

Still, I’ve enjoyed my time watching The Gilded Age and I recommend it for fans of Downton Abbey. I feel like this show has a lot of potential to really find its footing in future seasons, and it has some unique tools in its toolbox to potentially play around with, based on its unique setting. 

The United States in this era didn’t have royalty or quite the same obsession with the gentry that the English did; that being said, it’s interesting to watch how The Gilded Age depicts the prejudice between old money vs. new money. 

The main character is Marian Brook, a young woman who goes to live with her wealthy aunts in New York City after the death of her father. Her aunts – played delightfully by Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski – are part of New York’s elite upper crust, who resent up-and-comers like the railroading tycoons George and Bertha Russell. 

Even though the Russells have a grand house that would impress even Lord and Lady Grantham of Downton Abbey, people are reluctant to socialize with them because they’re new power players in the community and don’t have an illustrious family history stretching back generations. Mrs. Russell faces that challenge head on, and is determined to work her way into New York’s higher society. 

One of the things I like about The Gilded Age is that real-life historical figures occasionally make an appearance, including American Red Cross founder Clara Barton and inventor Thomas Edison. The post Civil War era was a period of rapid change in the U.S., and the characters (both real and fictional) have no idea of the explosion of further innovations coming their way. 

Much of the action in the show Downton Abbey takes place inside Downton Abbey itself, but due to its nature The Gilded Age features a wider variety of locations. It’s fun to contrast how different American high society and English high society were in past eras. 

Plus, I always geek out over historical costumes, and the elaborate outfits here are breathtaking. They don’t seem particularly comfortable to wear, of course, but they do look incredible on screen. 

In short, if you’re a period drama junkie like myself, you’ll probably find a lot to love about The Gilded Age. At the very least, it will help tide you over until the next Downton Abbey movie!

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