Airing 52 episodes from 2010-2015, “Downton Abbey” became a global phenomenon — and a big hit in Utah. Airing on KUED-Channel 7, the expansive story of a titled British family became a bit of an obsession, inspiring weekly viewing parties — including some with viewers dressed in period costumes.
A lot of us were completely caught up in this upstairs/downstairs saga of the Crawley family and their servants. We celebrated their triumphs and mourned their tragedies. Heck, we were sad when Lord Grantham’s golden retriever died. And we reveled in all the glamour of the age — the characters, their clothes, their servants, their cars, their brushes with nobility and their home, the Abbey itself.
So if I tell you that “The Gilded Age” is the next “Downton Abbey,” you will, no doubt, be skeptical. I certainly was.
Yes, “Gilded” comes to us from the team who brought us “Downton” — most notably, Julian Fellowes, the creator/writer/executive producer of both shows. “Gilded” is another upstairs/downstairs period piece, albeit set in a different time (the 1880s) in a different country (the United States). But can you catch lightning in a bottle twice?
I didn’t think it was possible. I was wrong. “The Gilded Age” is the best surprise to hit TV in a long time.
The series opens in 1882, shortly after the death of Marian Brook’s (Louisa Jacobson) father, who left her penniless. She’s forced to move from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to live with her aunts: Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) is sort of sweet, and Agness van Rhijn (Chirstine Baranski) is a dragon who’ll flame anyone who tries to break down the walls of the old money families who rule high society.
Much to Agness’ horror, a robber baron, George Russell (Morgan Spector), is moving into an enormous new home his wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon), has had constructed across the street. Bertha has big dreams of joining New York society.
But Agness, the Astors and uppercrust society aren’t about to let her in. “She’s built a palace to entertain the sort of people who will never come here,” says Miss Turner (Kelley Curran), Bertha’s maid.
Bertha, a strong-willed woman herself, can’t understand it. “Why must I be the enemy?” she asks a friend.
“That’s easy,” he replies. “They have been in charge since the Mayflower landed and now it’s your turn. Because you are the future. And if you are the future, they must be the past. That’s what frightens them.”
Marian is caught in the middle of this. She’s no shrinking violet — she openly disagrees with her Aunt Agness’ snobbery. But only to a point, given that she’s financially dependent on her. And you’ve got to wonder what Marian’s future with George and Bertha’s son, Oscar (Blake Ritson), might be.
On her way to New York, Marian is befriended by Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) when she needs a friend the most. And the young Black woman rather unexpectedly becomes part of the van Rhijn household.
These are just a few of the huge number of characters who populate “The Gilded Age.” As was the case with “Downton Abbey,” we’re quickly caught up in their lives and their struggles. And they’re not drawn in black and white — even the “bad” characters have virtues.
Agness’ manipulations and Bertha’s plots are delicious. And even George — who represents the worst of “The Gilded Age” — is engaging. Be careful, or you’ll find yourself rooting for him.
Before the final season of “Downton Abbey,” Hugh Bonneville (who starred as Robert Crawley) said the reason we loved that show so much was because the characters Fellowes created. “They may do bad things, but he writes from a position that human nature tries to do good,” he said. “And I think that comes across in all the characters. … He sees the best in people.”
After seeing the first five episodes of “The Gilded Age,” it looks like the same is true for “The Gilded Age.”
“The Gilded Age” premieres Monday at 7 p.m. on HBO. It also starts streaming Monday on HBO Max.
Another new prime-time soap with a twist
“Downton Abbey” was, at its heart, a prime-time soap opera. So is “The Gilded Age.” That’s not a knock on either of them — there’s nothing wrong with a good soap.
ABC’s “Promised Land” (Monday, 9 p.m., Channel 4) is a more traditional prime-time soap, albeit one about people who have been underrepresented on television.
There’s a lot happening in “Promised Land” familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a soap opera. Love triangles. Drug problems. An ex-wife out for revenge. A hit-and-run accident. A gay son rejected by his father. A stepson who resents his stepfather. Romantic rivals. A battle for control of a family business empire. Deep, dark secrets.
The big difference in “Promised Land” is that the majority of the family is Hispanic.
Family patriarch Joe Sandoval (John Ortiz) controls a hugely successful Sonoma, California, winery. His ex-wife and the mother of most of his children, Margaret Honeycroft (Bellamy Young), is plotting to take it away from him.
The narrative includes several characters who, as the series begins, are climbing the wall that separates Mexico and the United States. Their lives soon intertwine with the Sandovals and the Honeycrofts.
Creator/executive producer Matt Lopez says he deliberately did not “take a side in [the] immigration debate in this country,” adding the show is about “the pursuit of the American dream in all its beauty.” It’s worth pointing out, however, that most of the illegal immigrants are portrayed sympathetically. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
If “Promised Land” seems more than a bit like “Dallas,” that’s not a coincidence. Lopez said he was “a huge ‘Dallas’ fan” when he was growing up, and he “wanted to be … J.R. Ewing.” In that series, about the only Latinos on screen were the servants. In “Promised Land,” they take center stage. And much of the writing team and production crew are also Hispanic.
“I think it is important,” Lopez said. “I have found it’s just made the material better. … By having a lot of Latino and Latina members behind the camera, on the writing staff, there’s a level of personal investment that filters through in the material. There’s a passion for telling these stories.”
The first episode of “Promised Land” isn’t great. It’s more than a bit confusing, with a whole lot of characters and a whole lot of plot thrown at viewers. Episode 2 settles down and shows signs of becoming a good soap.