Premiering on Jan. 24 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, HBO's 10-episode The Gilded Age is the latest creation of British Catholic writer Julian Fellowes, best known for PBS' British class-drama/soap-opera Downton Abbey.
A Moment of Change in New York High Society
Like Downton, Fellowes' new show explores the upstairs/downstairs world of the wealthy and their servants. But this time, it's set in New York City in the 1880s, when the colonial-era aristocracy, descended from Dutch and English immigrants, faces a challenge from upstarts fueled by vast amounts of money from manufacturing and railroads.
In Fellowes' England, titles and land matter more than money. In the backstory of Downton Abbey, Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham, married Cora Levinson, a Gilded Age (1870s-1890s) American heiress, to use her money to save his title and land.
But in America, where history was short and memories often shorter, the old guard of New York society was nicknamed "The 400." That reportedly referred to social arbiter Ward McCallister's list of all the "right" people, who could still fit in the ballroom of the queen of New York society, Mrs. Caroline Astor.
"The 400" based their superiority on being Protestant, having arrived aboard the first boats from Holland and England and subsequently made good, and on their connections to the heroes of the Revolutionary War.
Compared to English aristocracy, they stood on sand, but they'd defend that sand to the metaphorical death.
That conflict is at the heart of The Gilded Age -- with the inclusion of the issue of race relations.
I've seen five of the 10 episodes, and here's what I know so far.
What is The Gilded Age About?
Louisa Jacobson (daughter of Meryl Streep) stars as twenty-something Marian Brook, a penniless Pennsylvania orphan who must move in with her New York aunts: wealthy widow Agnes Van Rhijn (the redoubtable Christine Baranski) and unmarried Ada Brook (a tremulous Cynthia Nixon), who, like Marian, relies on Agnes' largesse.
On her way to New York, Marian encounters elegant young African-American Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), an aspiring writer from Brooklyn who winds up working as Aunt Agnes' secretary.
Across the street from the Van Rhijn house on the corner of 5th Avenue and 61st Street is a huge new mansion built by savvy railroad magnate George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his beautiful, ambitious wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon).
Aunt Agnes (who rivals Downton's Dowager Countess for sharp comments and incisive observations) wants nothing to do with these social-climbing newcomers, no matter how much money they have, but the paths of Marian and Agnes' son, Oscar (Blake Ritson), cross with the Russells nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Marian's lawyer friend from Pennsylvania, Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel), arrives in New York and has an amazingly easy time moving into high society -- and Marian's orbit.
While working as a live-in secretary, Peggy makes some inroads in her writing career. She winds up meeting formerly enslaved man T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones). A real person, journalist and newspaper editor, Fortune is a man worth knowing about, so I'm hoping this leads to something interesting in future episodes.
Also, Peggy is the daughter of a successful business owner in Brooklyn (John Douglas Thompson and Audra McDonald play her parents) -- a family whose prosperity comes as a surprise to the kindhearted but naive Marian.
Real-life Red Cross founder Clara Barton (Linda Emond) shows up, illustrating the relationship between the rich (especially wealthy women with time on their hands) and charity.
It Is HBO, So Are There Racy Elements?
One of the male characters is gay, which is rather de rigueur these days, but the scenes are fairly restrained. Unfortunately, he's also pursuing marriage to an heiress, so there is an element of mercenary deceit.
Probably since this is HBO, there is a scene with a topless female at one point. It's a woman throwing herself at a married man, who, to his credit, rejects her advances.
In the episodes I saw, there was no profanity. There is a suicide by gun (implied, not actually shown), but that's the extent of real violence that I saw in five episodes.
Aside from a brief, mild objection from Aunt Agnes' household staff and a suspicious but silent store clerk, Peggy encounters remarkably little overt racism. This is a relief from the viciously racist acts that get spotlighted in a lot of shows today, but it doesn't seem entirely realistic.
But, people do smoke and drink a bit.
Does Faith Figure In The Gilded Age?
So far, not much. At one point, Peggy quotes Scripture in a newspaper story about Clara Barton, but that's about it.
Nobody is seen going to church or talking about going to church, and no clerics have shown up. I'd guess that most of the 400 were Episcopalian or some other sort of mainline Protestant, but I don't know the denominational breakdown.
So, Should Families Watch?
The sexual content is quite mild by HBO standards, but it's not nonexistent, so take that into account.
But, this is a pivotal period of American history, often overlooked in favor of telling more dynamic Western stories instead.
Prior to this, the subject's chief chronicler was the novelist Edith Wharton, whose book about pre-Gilded Age New York society, The Age of Innocence, was made into an excellent 1993 movie, directed by Martin Scorsese (no real objectionable content, so it's recommended for teens and up).
The notions of what makes a person acceptable in any given society -- class, family background, talent, looks, manners, dress, money, etc. -- are always changing.
Too frequently, the idea of social class is undervalued compared to its actual importance. It's murkier to define in America than in stratified societies like England, but it has an effect nonetheless.
While The Gilded Age would probably bore the pants off of anyone middle-school-age or younger, it could spark some research and interest for teens and up.
No doubt few teens have heard of T. Thomas Fortune, so his inclusion alone, and a peek into middle-class African-American life after the Civil War, is worth the price of admission.
For example, you could start with this Smithsonian article on the real Gilded Age, or this introductory biography of Fortune; this piece on the railroad barons; this post on Mrs. Astor and her circle; this course on social class in America; or this piece on African-Americans in Brooklyn.
Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Content Manager at Family Theater Productions.