The background here lies not in the British aristocracy, but in the hostility of the old families towards what they scornfully refer to as the “new people”, those who have made fortunes recently but who lack pretenses of access to the elite. Case.
Agnes married well, allowing her sister, she noted, “the pure and quiet life of a spinster.” Like Dowager Countess in “Downton,” Fellowes honors her with the best lines, to which Baransky delivers dripping poison, her fangs barely hidden.
What continually pisses her off is that the “new” people she objects to reside directly across the street, in the form of railroad baron George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bertha (Carrie Coon), who employ a handful of servants as Downton. When the mansion is not preserved, popular gossip in the basement about Russell’s prospects for acceptance into high society, Bertha’s relentless goal.
“She built a mansion to entertain the kind of people who would never come here,” said Bertha’s maid (Kelly Curran) as she plotted to figure out how she could escape the service.
This American version also brings race into the mix, introduced by Marianne’s journey to Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), an aspiring black writer who takes a position at Agnes’ job. Marianne’s desire to become Peggy’s girlfriend betrays her overt naivety and racism at the time, despite the marginal depth, perhaps an inevitable function of everything else unfolding upstairs and downstairs.
Fellowes remains an absolute master at reconciling an astonishing number of subplots as well as finding intriguing wrinkles in characters with relatively minor roles, such as Blake Ritson as the cunning son of Agnes. There’s a particular embarrassment of riches on the actress’ side, with Audra McDonald, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Donna Murphy helping to separate the already elegant joint.
The early episodes (five of the nine were previewed) admirably chew up the story, suggesting that while the dresses may look stiff and boxy, the pace isn’t.
The cast of actors is as impeccable as period fashion, with Jacobson as a contemporary newcomer caught in the middle of these ancient grudges, and Cohn and Specter excel as the ultimate couple, playing a long game in leveraging their fortune to break down barriers erected by the entrenched establishment.
One tension includes the question of Marianne marrying for something other than financial advantage, a prospect revived by the horror of her pragmatic aunt. “Would you not compromise anything for my age and experience?” Agnes asks her.
Although real-life characters from that period pass through the story, the “Golden Age” quickly makes its own dense reality. And while many of the characters have obvious counterparts in Downton (including life in the gay closet during this era), the Yankee flavor sets the series apart enough to set them apart.
“The Gilded Age” premieres January 24 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.