Review: ‘The Gilded Age’ sets itself apart from other period dramas

Photo courtesy of Collider

By Clay Thompson | Reporter

I was skeptical when I began watching HBO Max’s “The Gilded Age.” I wasn’t sure of the appeal of a period drama set in 1882 New York City, however, I was sorely mistaken. I now consider “The Gilded Age” to be one of the best shows of 2022 so far.

The premise of the show is spectacularly simple yet profoundly important and relevant. Marian Brook, a young woman whose father died, travels to live with her aunts in New York City during the late 1800s when the fight between new and old money-based societies was reaching a fever pitch.

The main drama and conflict revolve around a new money family, the Russels, who moved in on old money territory, right across from the protagonist and her aunts. The Russels struggle and claw to gain their way into the in-crowd and of course, drama ensues. Additionally, several wonderfully plotted and paced B-plots also go on as the show progresses. Each stage and web in this dramatic thread are masterfully written and acted out. With the creator of the show having previous experience in historical drama with the ever-popular British series, “Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes has once again created a masterfully written, directed and acted drama.

The acting in the series is also immensely superb, as acting veterans like Carri Coon and Christine Baranski steal the show with their controlled yet endearingly flawed characters, who play an invisible battle of wills across the busy New York street. Others, such as Denée Benton and Louisa Jacobson, also perform their characters splendidly, as two young people from different places in society, who struggle to adapt to the immense changes New York society forces on them. Overall, the acting is yet another solid hit for the show’s freshman outing.

Lastly, I have to praise the drama itself in the show. There were so many times when I surprised myself by audible gasps and visceral responses to what were veiled and backhanded compliments tossed out subtly by the actors at dinner tables and galas. My perception was I had been so submerged lately in large dramas — where people would scream and shout at one another over every conflict or problem — that the subtlety and relative calmness of conflict and drama that so plagued America’s history in the polite society of the 1800s that was present in the show was a system shock for me of what television drama could be. There will be no uncontrollable shouting matches or over-the-top physical brawls in this show. Instead arguments are conducted in quiet, hidden conversations, scrapped when others might happen to walk by or whispered alone in solitary rooms, but that makes all of the drama in “The Gilded Age” all the more compelling: how accurate it is to the time period, as well as how different it is from typical television dramas today.

There was one confusion I had with the show and that was the rating. HBO Max has rated the show TV-MA for adult content, but other than some brief and very unnecessary nudity in episode four, the show could be no more than a TV-14 at least in my opinion. This could lead many parents or guardians to keep their children from watching the show based on only knowing its rating, and I think that is a shame.

Julian Fellowes has once again created a period drama that is one for the ages. From the perfect cast and their brilliant acting to the set pieces and costumes and drama that — while subtle — is more enthralling than most shows of its caliber, “The Gilded Age” will be another hit for the streaming service, and I cannot wait for the second season to arrive.