NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, February 4th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: America’s aristocracy.
Fans of period dramas are used to watching sweeping stories set in British manor houses. Downton Abbey, anyone?
EICHER: But America had her own era of over-the-top opulence. And it’s on full display in the latest offering from the master of the costume drama.
Here’s reviewer Collin Garbarino.
COLLIN GARBARINO, REVIEWER: Julian Fellowes, the man who gave us Downton Abbey, is back with a new lavish costume drama airing Monday nights on HBO and streaming on HBO Max. This time Fellowes sets his story in one of America’s most extravagant periods. The series is called The Gilded Age, and it follows the lives of upper-crust New Yorkers at the end of the 19th century. And of course the story includes the men and women who served them.
Agnes: She means to join us here just as soon as she has closed the house and sold her furniture.
Ada: Oh, what a relief.
Agnes: A relief? And who is to support her? Exactly. Me. With the Van Rhijn money, which was not achieved at no cost to myself. You were allowed the pure and tranquil life of a spinster. I was not.
Fellowes introduces us to a world of aristocratic families and newly rich robber barons through the eyes of Marian Brook—a penniless girl recently arrived in New York, who must rely on the good graces of her wealthy Aunt Agnes. Aunt Agnes, however, has her own worries. She’s obsessed with making sure New York’s old money maintains its preeminent position.
Agnes: Now you need to know we only receive the old people in this house, not the new. Never the new.
Marian: What’s the difference?
Agnes: The old have been in charge since before the revolution. They ruled justly until the new people invaded.
Ada: It’s not quite as simple as that.
Agnes: Yes, it is.
It becomes harder and harder for Agnes to keep her world from changing when the obscenely rich railroad magnate George Russell builds a palace across the street. George’s wife Bertha has everything she wants except recognition from the most respectable ladies in town.
George: So, how was your afternoon?
Bertha: I’ve left cards with Mrs. Stevens, Mrs. Rutherford, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Vanderbilt, Mrs. Schermerhorn, and Mrs. Astor, of course.
George: Of course.
Bertha: So now they know we’re here.
George: We have been in New York City for three years, Bertha, watching this house rise from the sidewalk.
Bertha: But we’ve been stuck down on 30th Street with yesterday’s men.
George: You chose the house.
Bertha: I didn’t know how things worked then. Now I do. The point is, we’re settled where we should be, and that’s what I wanted to show them.
George: They don’t care. They don’t know we exist.
Bertha: Well, they will now, and there’s no need to sound superior. We cannot succeed in this town without Mrs. Astor’s approval. I know that much.
The Gilded Age is rated TV-MA, and I worried HBO had created a racier version of Downton Abbey. So far, that hasn’t been the case. Fellowes includes a homosexual subplot, just like in Downton Abbey. Other than that, the first two episodes have been pretty tame. Later episodes might introduce more explicit content, but so far, the series hasn’t contained anything that couldn’t air on PBS.
In fact, if The Gilded Age has a fault, it’s that Fellowes doesn’t give us much that he hasn’t already shown us on PBS. Attractive young people still look for suitable spouses, but lack the money or status necessary for happiness. The old guard still tries to maintain tradition despite the implacable advance of history.
Oscar: Are you going to their soirée?
Agnes: Of course not. Don’t say such things.
Oscar: Mama, you are incorrigible.
Agnes: I take that as the highest praise.
Upstairs we still find cash-strapped upper crust with idealistic youths challenging their more cynical elders. Downstairs we find the competent butler and housekeeper, keeping their eyes on the conniving lady’s maid and the valet with a mysterious past.
Turner: Are you keeping something from us?
Mrs. Bruce: Come, Miss Turner. There’s no need to put him on the spot.
Watson: I don’t need protection, Mrs. Bruce, thank you. I’ve nothing to hide.
Baudin: Well, if that is true, you must be a very unusual person.
But the series does have a couple new angles. Fellowes attempts to tackle race in America by providing Marian with a black companion named Peggy. And the ascendancy of the robber barons seems relevant in our age of tech titans frolicking in outer space. The show indulges in some moralizing, but true to the age, it looks toward American transcendentalism rather than the Bible for its ethical compass.
Ada: I only ask that you never break your own moral code, for that is the soundest guide any of us can have.
Marian: How wise, Aunt Ada!
Ada: Please don’t sound quite so surprised.
I didn’t find The Gilded Age the least bit surprising, but I found myself enjoying it anyway. There’s a reason why Downton Abbey became a phenomenon. And once again, Fellowes gives us smartly written characters, filmed in lavish sets and costumes, trying to fall in love. Audiences seemingly can’t get enough. It’s not new, but it’s entertaining.
I’m Collin Garbarino.
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