The Gilded Age

We’ve started watching The Gilded Age, a new HBO drama about New York City in the 1880s. The show is a prototypical period drama about an era when fortunes were being made and spent, the gap between the lifestyles of the poor and the wealthy became an immense gulf, the wealthy wore elaborate outfits (and changed multiple times a day) and adopted elaborate manners, and some people, at least, cared deeply and passionately about high society pecking orders and codes of conduct.

The series focuses on the households of the Van Rhijns and the Russells, who just happen to live across the street from each other in one of New York’s toniest neighborhoods. The Van Rhijns are old money and old New York, with all of the uber-snobbishness that attends that status, whereas the Russells are new money–lots and lots of new money, in fact–and have built an enormous mansion and happily engage in ostentatious displays of super-wealth, just to get some attention. In short, the Russells desperately want to be accepted into New York society, and at least some of the Van Rhijns are equally desperate to prevent that from ever happening.

As with any period drama, a lot of what’s interesting about the show relates to the setting and the recreation of the attire and practices of the era. The creators of The Gilded Age have done a meticulous job in that regard; the “production value” of the series is obvious, and the show is worth watching just for the ladies’ elaborate hats. But the incessant social scheming is entertaining, too, as is the upstairs-downstairs interaction between and among servants and served. Throw in overt insider trading in the unregulated post-Civil War era and business activities designed specifically to crush rivals and leave them ruined and destitute, and you’ve got a winner in my book.

Carrie Coon (an Ohio native who we first saw in The Leftovers) deftly plays Bertha Russell, who will do whatever it takes to claw her way into the highest levels of society, and Christine Baranski is delightfully snooty and formidable as Agnes Van Rhijn, the matriarch of the Van Rhijn contingent. The kids in each household act as a kind of buffer between that irresistible force and immovable object. My favorite characters so far are George Russell, played by Morgan Spector, the railroad baron who is good-humored home but implacably ruthless as the head of the Russell Trust Company, and Denee Benton as Peggy Scott, shown in the photo above, a smart and sensible young woman who has the talent and ambition to be a successful writer but will have to overcome the racism and sexism of her time to do it.

It’s hard to imagine there was a time when people cared so much about social conventions and family lineage, but one of the joys of period pieces is catching a glimpse of those long-ago worlds during their heyday. The Gilded Age does an excellent, and entertaining, job of recreating the era that gave the show its name.