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Review: 'Downton Abbey' fans will swoon over HBO's 'Gilded Age'

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"Downton Abbey" fanatics have already been treated to a feature film with a second one on the way. Now they're getting "The Gilded Age," a new series from "Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes that's every bit as scrumptious as his PBS classic.

"Gilded Age," airing Mondays on HBO, takes place in 1882 America as the old-money establishment is getting hot and bothered by new money taking over the toniest neighborhoods of New York City.

The old guard is represented by Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), sticking her nose as high in the air as Maggie Smith's Violet Crawley ever did. She's the kind of caretaker that would insist on a 7:30 p.m. curfew for a 23-year-old.

The most immediate threat to her way of life is the Russell family, which has moved across the street, upgrading its home with the fortune that the patriarch (Morgan Spector) has made from the railroad business.

His wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon, a last-minute replacement for Amanda Peet), is determined to rise to the top of the social ladder, even if it means buying her way there.

"I don't want to come a long way," she says to her eager-to-please husband. "I want to go all the way." The "old money," which includes Mary Astor, give her the high hat. Big mistake.

Stuck in the middle is Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson, the latest of Meryl Streep's daughters to take up acting), a newcomer to Manhattan, forced to move in with her aunts/sisters van Rhijn and Ada Brook, a cockeyed optimist. She's played by "Sex and the City" veteran Cynthia Nixon, who somehow manages to be eternally cheerful without making you want to throw up.

Marian wants to respect her relatives' fuddy-duddy wishes, but she also can't help sneaking out to attend one of Russell's parties and flirting with their son. She'd get along famously with "Abbey"s rebellious Lady Mary.

As in the past, Fellowes pays heed to the house staff. We spend ample time downstairs with the butlers and maids, who are just as colorful as their counterparts across the pond.

But this time, the story also focuses on race.

Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) a Black writer who becomes van Rhijn's secretary, is integral to the action, especially when she tries to break down barriers to get published.

In one squirm-inducing scene, Marian pays a visit (gasp!) to Peggy in Brooklyn, bringing along discarded shoes because she incorrectly assumes her friend's family is living in squalor.

You may also find yourself fidgeting over some of Fellowes' cliche-ridden dialogue, which includes lines like "pure as the driven snow" and "I'll make them pay someday!"

But you'll be too delighted by so many great touches to quibble.

The homes and street scenes, shot in upstate New York and Rhode Island, are spectacular. So are the guest stars, especially if you're a Broadway baby. Tony winners Audra McDonald, Kelli O'Hara, Donna Murphy and Nathan Lane all pop up, often as important figures from the era.

Watching how Fellowes incorporates real events, like the creation of the Red Cross, the pursuit of Jesse James and the digging of the Panama Canal, will be catnip for history buffs. But don't worry — the nine episodes never feel like a school lesson.

The next "Abbey" movie is scheduled for release in March. "Gilded Age" is so good you may forget to care.

———

"The Gilded Age" airs at 9 p.m. Mondays on HBO and streams on HBO Max.

 

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