The Gilded Age review: Sky Atlantic’s answer to Downton Abbey turns dynamic history into lethargic television

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Christine Baranski and Carrie Coon star in this clash of sensibilities between the old money rich and the new

Julian Fellowes has been developing The Gilded Age, on and off, since 2012. The period drama – at times positioned as a prequel to Downton Abbey, though as broadcast there’s only a thematic connection rather than anything more than that – has been attached to both ITV and NBC before ending up on HBO and Sky Atlantic, where it’s airing currently. It finally began filming at the start of March 2020, before encountering a series of delays for obvious reasons.

The Gilded Age is set in New York in the late 1800s, a period of rapid economic growth and industrial expansion; the series charts the conflict between the old money rich and the new money rich, and the clash of sensibilities that follow. It’s very broad and open in its themes, wearing its ideas about the past and present and future on its sleeve, with characters regularly declaring these motifs and messages to one another in casual conversation. There’s no danger of anyone misunderstanding The Gilded Age: in each episode there’s some dialogue to that effect, not so much pointed as unmissable. “They have been in charge since the Mayflower landed,” one of them will explain, “and if you are the future, then they must be the past, and that frightens them.”

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What’s interesting about that conflict is less what’s different about the old money rich and the new money rich, but rather what they have in common. Small differences are magnified and made enormous by virtue of how similar everything else is; the widow Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and her sister Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) are really only separated from robber baron and rail magnate George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his self-styled debutante wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) by social convention that seems arbitrary to an outsider.

That does mean, admittedly, that The Gilded Age is building its drama around subtleties that are at times difficult to distinguish; for all that the Russells are rich enough to make grand provocative gestures, and indeed are inclined to in a way the more restrained van Rhijns are not, The Gilded Age adheres very strictly to its own rather sedate status quo once established. Again, it’s that sense of something being magnified: the real American Gilded Age was a period of huge upheaval, but Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age zooms in so closely that the arc of change looks like a plateau.

Morgan Spector as George Russell & Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell (Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa/Heyday Productions)Morgan Spector as George Russell & Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell (Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa/Heyday Productions)
Morgan Spector as George Russell & Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell (Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa/Heyday Productions) | Heyday Productions

As a result, The Gilded Age isn’t necessarily something to seek out if you’re looking for a dynamic character drama. The performances are all strong, but then the material doesn’t ask a great deal of any of them: Christine Baranski could do this sort of arch, faintly sarcastic line delivery in her sleep, and Carrie Coon’s character here is no Nora Durst (although, in fairness, what character is). At times it feels a little unfocused – split between quite a large regular and recurring cast – and it’s hard not to wish it had been pared back a little to use its runtime more efficiently. (Denée Benton as Peggy Scott feels particularly under-utilised, though that’s more because she’s so good you end up wishing she was the main lead than it is anything else.)

Really, The Gilded Age is something you’d watch to appreciate other aspects of the production. The move from NBC to HBO brought with it an increase in budget, and you can see essentially every penny of that onscreen: it’s a visibly quite expensive period drama even by their standards, with all the lavish set design and extravagant costuming you’d expect. The direction – from Downton Abbey stalwart Michael Engler and Salli Richardson – is uncomplicated but straightforward, not so much accentuating the set design but letting it stand without unnecessary flattery. More impressive than the production design though is the score, with the Gregson-William brothers offering this grand, sweeping musical arrangement that does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of the drama of The Gilded Age – that music is the best part of the show.

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Otherwise, across the board, it’s essentially exactly what you’d expect of Fellowes’ spiritual prequel to Downton Abbey (even, at times, feeling derivative of Downton Abbey in ways you’d probably notice even if you haven’t actually seen Downton Abbey). It’s not a programme that’s going to change minds or convince doubters; if you’re already disinclined to enjoy period drama like this, The Gilded Age won’t be some grand revelation. For those that did enjoy Downton, though, The Gilded Age will likely be a perfectly acceptable substitute in its absence – at least until the new film comes out in March, anyway.

The Gilded Age begins on Sky Atlantic and Now TV on Tuesday 25 January and continues weekly after that. I’ve seen six of a total nine episodes before writing this review.

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