The Gilded Age – 1×01 : ‘Never the New’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Written by Julian Fellowes
Directed by Michael Engler
Original Air Date: 24th January 2022

The luscious set design, the incredible attention to period detail, intricate dialogue delivered by a top tier cast, all the while a gorgeous music score plays over everything; yes, we are back in Jullian Fellowes territory. 

While the writer has delivered other series in the interim between the end of Downton Abbey and the premiere of The Gilded Age (Belgravia and The English Game), not to mention two Downton Abbey films for the silver screen, his newest concoction, this time for HBO as opposed to ITV, makes its way to the screen in a manner that feels as if it will be a more sure-fire hit than his most recent post-Downton works.

Yet, there is the potential for a spikier edge here than what he delivered with his none more iconic period piece for ITV.

Make no mistake, this might be made for HBO, but he hasn’t gone for something approaching an 18 rating. Just because he is producing something for the home of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Euphoria doesn’t mean he’s dropping full-frontal nudity, violence and strong language into his scripts. One could argue this may very well be the most PG-rated production HBO has delivered in recent years (at least as far as this opening episode is concerned). 

If Downton luxuriated with its cast in that house and a well-honed system of upstairs-downstairs life and engrossing soap opera plots involving complex relationships and sudden dramas that made one laugh or gasp in shock (remember when Matthew died at Christmas?), then there is something more akin to the works of Edith Wharton here. 

The setting of 1880s New York gives this a different vibe to Downton even if the structural set-up is sometimes similar. Rich life upstairs, servant life in the lower quarters, and at various points one might even expect Jim Carter to show up and hear someone calling out for ‘Carson’. The similarities end there and by the end of its feature-length opener, it appears that Fellowes might be getting a slightly more poisonous pen out for this exploration of life amongst the upper classes in a constantly in-flux New York City. 

You can tell that readings of The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence (and possibly viewings of their superlative film versions) have been inspirations here. Where Downton lost itself in the grander of that house and the lives of everyone in it, there is a more expansive nature to The Gilded Age right from its opening moments. Where everything was centred predominantly on one location in Downton (although it did step outside its confines), the input of all that HBO cash means that we have lavishly mounted exterior sequences where convincing CGI and set building is fully selling us on the idea that this is 1880’s New York City. 

It looks gorgeous, but the story has more bite even when Fellowes luxuriates in his wordplay and allows a stellar cast that includes Carrie Coon, Cynthia Nixon and the legendary Christine Baranski (and bravo for the timing of her credit) to go town with it. 

The characters of Marian (Louisa Jacobson) and Peggy (Denee Denton) are the audience surrogates to this world, but it’s one that we get to grips with very easily; the opulence of new money and a new way to express wealth get looked down upon by the older guard. It is, for all intents and purpose, a series about rich people looking aghast at other rich people, but as always with Fellowes when he’s on form, he pulls you right into it somewhat against your will and by the end of the episode you’ll be clamouring for more. 

Of course, it’s a series about a bunch of rich people with rich people problems, but where his most famous work was a world you wanted to actually be in as much as escape to, there is a sense that Fellowes has been listening to criticism levelled at his work and took some of it on board. He doesn’t shy away from the toxicity of class or the racism of the period. Yes, this is still coming from a white upper-class male writer (and one who is a Conservative peer no less), but he has an ability to craft brilliant television that you find yourself wanting to reject and then end up being sucked into anyway. 

Certain critics and swathes of the audience might take against it, but if the remainder of the series can match this opening episode, then chances are Fellowes and HBO might have a massive hit on their hands.

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