'The Gilded Age' review: 'Succession' by way of 'Downton Abbey'

New HBO series, from 'Downton Abbey' creator Julian Fellowes, unfolds in late 1800s New York City.

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

“The Gilded Age” dances a delicate line between delicious and dull. It’s impeccably acted, opulent and extravagant, yet also curiously emotionally empty. It’s mostly about spoiled rich people.

Hmmm, isn’t that a show called “Succession”?

Louisa Jacobson and Denée Benton in "The Gilded Age."

Think “Succession” without electricity. It takes place circa 1880 in New York City, when the old money social elites were confronted by new money social climbers, the so-called robber barons and railroad tycoons. It’s the snooty against the would-be snooty.

There’s also a bit of “Upstairs, Downstairs” contrast, which is hardly surprising since this show comes from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes. But the servants and such stay pretty secondary to the snobs, a decision that somewhat deflates the show’s potential.

The chief snob here is Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), an old money widow who lives with her spinster sister Ada (a tittering Cynthia Nixon). Into their lives comes a penniless niece, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) who has been helped by a young, educated Black woman, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton, in a plot stretch). 

Also entering the sisters’ lives, or at least their gaze, are the owners of the just-built mansion across the street, the ultra wealthy George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his storm-the-social-barriers wife Bertha (Carrie Coon). Bertha is absurdly protective of their grown daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) who she sees as a way to wed the family into a secure social perch.

The sisters can literally look down on these awful newcomers from their drawing room. So they do.

Being as how this is a modern prestige show, there are approximately 746 other notable roles: A gay schemer, a temptress, anguished estranged parents, a gentleman caller, it goes on and on.

The main question is, how much real drama can be squeezed out of rich people bickering? Baranski is a goddess of acerbic condescension, but that can only go so far, and Coon’s quest to become as big a snob as her neighbors doesn’t exactly qualify as inspirational.

Still, it sparkles and is highly watchable. Some may find the mix of social tension, grand displays of wasteful wealth and historical detail satisfying. Others may be struck by how the rich can be so petty. But then, they’re rich; they have the time for it.

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. 

'The Gilded Age'


9 p.m. Sunday