The creator of the famous Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, returns to television with another period drama. In this case it is set in New York in the time period called the Gilded Age, a golden age for the city in the late 19th century. Fellowes had always wanted to do a kind of Downton prequel, and at some point he considered telling how Count Robert Crawley and his wife, the American Cora, met and fell in love. Finally, the new series does not draw on these characters but it does enter a world that has always fascinated the director and screenwriter: the moment just after the US civil war when the great American families began to settle in Manhattan and lay the groundwork for New York City to become the epicentre of the world, and for the US to consolidate itself as the world’s new leading power. It was a time of great fortunes, and dynasties such as Astor, Vanderbilt and Rockefeller. It was a world of prejudice and glamour, which Martin Scorsese portrayed in The Age of Innocence in all its splendor.
In fact, without a doubt one of the strengths of the series is its production design: the sets and costumes are spectacular and really take us back to 1882, the time when the story begins. We meet Marian, a young woman from a small Pennsylvania town who has to leave her home when her father dies, burdened with debt. The girl goes to live in New York with her aunts: Agnes, a wealthy widow belonging to high society, and Ada, a single woman who is completely dependent on her sister’s charity.
The cast lives up to the expectations of a major production: the young Marina is played by Louisa Jacobson, Meryl Streep’s eldest daughter; Christine Baranski (The Good Fight) plays Agnes, and Cynthia Nixon (Sex in New York) is Ada.
Marian’s arrival in New York coincides with another arrival. Opposite the sisters’ house, the Russell family has built a large mansion with the wealth accrued through the business dealings of the father, George, a railway industrialist. His wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon, The Leftovers), is an ambitious woman who aims to get into high society using her money. However, she will find all sorts of opposition among the most powerful families, who value old traditions above all and disapprove of modernity.
In the midst of this war of intrigue and sabotage among the rich, the younger members establish relationships with each other. Marian meets the Russell brothers, Larry and Gladys, while she fights with her strict and tense Aunt Agnes. She also befriends Peggy, a black girl with family problems who ends up as a secretary for Agnes. Through this character played by Denée Benton we see how racism and discrimination works in this world. It remains to be seen if the series will become a phenomenon like Dowton Abbey. For now, we know there will be a second season.