Can’t Miss Episode of the Week: ‘The Gilded Age’ Series Premiere

The Gilded Age - Louisa Jacobson and Denee Benton

Welcome to our weekly column Can’t Miss Episode of the Week! Every Saturday we’ll be spotlighting a different episode of television from that week that we thought was exceptional and a must-see. Check back to see if your favorite show got the nod — or to learn about a new one! Spoilers ahead.

If you miss the beautiful costumes and sets, the scandals of rich people, and the old-fashioned love stories of Downton Abbey, then you will love The Gilded Age, Downton creator Julian Fellowes’ new period show that premiered January 24 on HBO. This time set in New York City in 1882, The Gilded Age is just as sumptuous and comforting, and includes a stellar cast.

When the young and beautiful Marian Brook’s (Louisa Jacobson) father passes away, leaving her without any money, she is forced to go live with her rich aunts in New York. While she may be new to the city, as her stern Aunt Agnes (Christine Baranski) reminds her, she comes from a family of old money, which matters. This struggle between the old and new money is at the heart of the show, especially as a new family moves into the house across the street, and matriarch Bertha Russell (a fierce Carrie Coon) strives to break into the high society she’s so desperate to be a part of. Her attempt at throwing a party sadly and predictably fails when no one shows up.

While prestige TV can often take itself too seriously, this series never pretends to be more than it is. When Agnes warns about the dangers of hanging with the wrong people, we get to roll our eyes right alongside Marian. We’re meant to delight in these silly squabbles, not act as if the fate of the world rests on them, even if sometimes the characters do.

That being said, the characters are genuinely endearing, and the relationships that form between them are a solid foundation to build the show on. Due to a twist of fate, Marian meets a black woman named Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) on the train to New York, and after they show each other kindness–Peggy lends Marian money for new train tickets when hers are stolen and Marian offers Peggy a ride and a place to stay when a storm cancels the ferry to Brooklyn–they’re already on their way to becoming fast friends. Now that Peggy’s settled as Agnes’s secretary at the house, there’s plenty of room for this relationship to grow. It’s also a much more elegant way to include diversity than Bridgerton’s clumsy revisionist history to explain their blind casting. Peggy has her own rich backstory that we learn about this episode, including her ambitions to be a writer, and a tantalizing mystery about what happened between her and her father that led to them no longer speaking.

The Gilded Age Season 1 Louisa Jacobson and Taissa Farmiga

(Credit: HBO)

To add a little Jane Austen-style romance to the story, Marian and her dashing new neighbor Larry Russell (Harry Richardson) have a meet-cute when he saves her dog Pumpkin (who is adorable!) from being run over by a carriage. Even better, since he represents new money, and Agnes would have a fit if she knew, this is bound to be forbidden love.

Agnes is hardly a villain, though. She may not have the instant warmth and understanding that her sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) exhibits, but she acts deliberately and with fairness, and has her own sad history: we learn about how she was left with nothing after her brother sold everything, and how she provided for her and Ada by marrying someone awful. She may be a little cold, but she deserves our respect.

It’s a delicious drama about people in equally gorgeous gowns and sets as Downton had, but with fashions for a whole new era. The premiere is one hour and 20 minutes long, and yet by the end, you’ll still be salivating for more.

The Gilded Age, Mondays, 9/8c, HBO