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HBO's 'The Gilded Age' is a story about money and class in 1882 New York


"Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes has developed a new TV show for HBO. It's called "The Gilded Age," and it debuts tonight. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show feels a lot like "Downton" set in America but still has its own special charm.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It's tough for me to admit, but there's a lot I like about the new show Julian Fellowes has created about the white, wealthy and powerful in 1880s-era New York "The Gilded Age." Chief among my likes here is Christine Baranski, who breathes fire as widowed matriarch Agnes Van Rhijn. Agnes is an old-money Dutch American socialite who objects to newly wealthy families trying to enter the city's elite society. That's epitomized by railroad tycoon George Russell and his wife, Bertha, who've just moved in across the street. Agnes explains this to her son, Oscar, played by Blake Ritson.


CHRISTINE BARANSKI: (As Agnes Van Rhijn) New York is a collection of villages, my dear. We know the people who live in our own village.

BLAKE RITSON: (As Oscar Van Rhijn) The Russells live in your village, Mama.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes Van Rhijn) I'm not concerned with facts, not if they interfere with my beliefs.

RITSON: (As Oscar Van Rhijn) I give you prejudice in a nutshell.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes Van Rhijn) I'm going up to change.

RITSON: (As Oscar Van Rhijn) I doubt it, Mama. I'd say you'll come down again without having changed at all.

DEGGANS: If you know Fellowes' previous TV hit, the drama about wealthy British families in the early 1900s called "Downton Abbey," then you will recognize many of "Downton's" the signature flourishes in "The Gilded Age." In both shows, there is a well-meaning but rigid head of household holding on to increasingly outdated social rules, and there are rebellious younger people. In "The Gilded Age," that's Louisa Jacobson's Marian Brook, a niece forced to move in with Agnes when her father dies. And Marion realizes he has lied about their lives, and she is penniless.


THOMAS COCQUEREL: (As Tom Raikes) I've looked into the estate of the late Mr. Brook.

LOUISA JACOBSON: (As Marian Brook) The late General Brook.

COCQUEREL: (As Tom Raikes) And I cannot find any assets beyond the contents of his bank account.

JACOBSON: (As Marian Brook) And the house.

COCQUEREL: (As Tom Raikes) The house is rented, Miss Brook. I will waive my own fee.

JACOBSON: (As Marian Brook) There's no need.

COCQUEREL: (As Tom Raikes) There is every need. You will have in your possession somewhere in the region of $30.

DEGGANS: Cynthia Nixon, playing Agnes' spinster sister, Ada, is a bridge between her rigid sibling and rebellious Marian. Fellowes loves to humanize his rigid heroes. Here, Ada accomplishes that by explaining why she and Agnes hated Marian's father, their brother, so much.


CYNTHIA NIXON: (As Ada Brook) He sold our family farms. He sold the house where we were born and where we had lived for a century and a half. He bought nothing. He saved nothing. He gave us, his sisters, nothing.

DEGGANS: What annoys me most about "The Gilded Age" is how it makes me root for robber baron George Russell and wife, Bertha, played impeccably by Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon, who are constantly snubbed by pretentious old-money families. The list of new-money families Agnes and her allies despise includes J.P. Morgan, the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts, a telling commentary that yesterday's grasping upstarts are tomorrow's pillars of society. Fellowes even corrects one serious drawback from "Downton," including a prominent Black character in "The Gilded Age" from the beginning. Denee Benton's Peggy Scott learns a white newspaper, The Christian Advocate, will publish her fiction if she hides her identity.


DENEE BENTON: (As Peggy Scott) The Christian Advocate is asking me to lie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) There are at least two white men sitting in a bar around the corner drinking away their sorrows because I turned them down. They'd kill to be in your position.

BENTON: (As Peggy Scott) But they'd never be in my position.

DEGGANS: Moments like this turn "The Gilded Age" into a compelling story about the struggle for status and progress in the early days of New York City. It's a tale that should resonate with today's times if the show can shake off the long shadow of its creator's previous hit. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIEFER'S "FRIENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.