The Gilded Age
By Joyce Slaton,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Race and class consciousness in flawed, lavish period drama.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this TV show.
Focuses tightly on class wars between old- and new-money New Yorkers but the show's working class seem content with their place; they don't complain about the work they do or compare themselves to the wealthy people they serve. Viewers are shown the emotional consequences of being left out, how it causes trauma to those who don't feel included.
Positive Role Models
Certain characters are easier to root for than others, like Ada van Rhijn, who says that following one's own moral compass is the surest guide anyone could have to life. Others, like Agnes van Rhijn, are openly snobbish, or vicious, like Bertha Russell, who coldly abandons her own friends to seek fancier new ones, and husband George, who destroys a rival's life to make a point to others who might oppose him. Many characters are wealthy and don't need to work, which is interesting but hardly instructive. As a Black woman who works tirelessly to become a writer, Peggy Scott may be this series' best role model.
The inclusion of Black character Peggy Scott can read as tokenism but it does lend more scope to a drama about historical characters in a rarified wealthy milieu. We see the racism she faces both in public and private, and understand (and cringe at) how painful it is; making her a college-educated aspiring writer is an interesting and dramatically meaty choice, too. But certain characters are unrealistically open-minded for the times, and the show doesn't explain it, which detracts from the realism. The show takes time to introduce real-life Black characters such as publisher T. Thomas Fortune, which may inspire readers to learn more about Black life in late 19th century New York City.
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Violence & Scariness
A character dies by suicide. (Not depicted, but gunshot is heard, with light blood spatters on table.)
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Marriage is an endless topic of conversation; expect lots of talk about who's suitable for whom. Expect flirting, kissing, old-fashioned dating that takes place at parties, chaperoned by family at home. One character is involved in a same-sex partnership that's kept secret; we see them kissing in a way that suggests a comfortable, long-running sexual relationship. At its raciest, a woman is naked in dim candlelight, lap blanketed but breasts visible.
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Language is infrequent: "hell," "bastard."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
We see visuals of characters drinking wine with dinner, of wealthy people smoking cigars; a character refers to a "smoking room."
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Gilded Age is a lavish period drama set in the late 19th century in New York City, created by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey). The show focuses on societal and cultural struggles between people who considered themselves "old money" (with inherited wealth) and those considered "new money" (people who made money through business), and as such demonstrates the pain that snobbery and unkindness can cause. The inclusion of a main Black character, a college-educated woman who aspires to be a novelist, also interjects racial consciousness into the series, though her storyline is on the minor side compared to the White characters. Servants who toil in the service of their wealthy employers are almost universally happy at their work and don't appear jealous or resentful of those they serve. Otherwise, iffy content is infrequent. We see characters drinking wine with dinner and smoking cigars; no one acts drunk. A character dies by suicide; it's off-screen but a gunshot is heard and blood lightly spatters on a table. One woman is seen naked from the waist up (breasts visible), there's a lot of talk about marriage and who could be "suitable," and a main character has a same-sex relationship that's kept secret. Language is infrequent, but expect "hell" and "bastard."
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The Gilded Age
Based on 4 parent reviews
No Good Reason for Nude Scene
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Wooden, but interesting. A shame about introducing nudity to otherwise family programme
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What's the Story?
As THE GILDED AGE opens in late 19th century New York City, Bertha (Carrie Coon) and George Russell (Morgan Spector) use their recently acquired fortune to build a vast palace on Fifth Avenue, right across from the home of the van Rhijns, Agnes (Christine Baranski) and Ada (Cynthia Nixon), who pride themselves on their connections to "old" New York and are determined to snub the Russells and their children, recent college graduate Larry (Harry Richardson) and rebellious teen Gladys (Taissa Farmiga). But when the van Rhijns' long-lost niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson) arrives in town with her friend Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a college-educated Black woman and aspiring writer, it's clear that change is coming, both to the van Rhijn house and to the New York society circles in which the van Rhijns and their ilk have long presided over. Created by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey).
Is It Any Good?
It's staffed with wonderful actors and extraordinary to look at, and it has a promising premise in the clash between old money and new in Gilded Age NYC, so why does this period drama feel so meh? Perhaps it's unfair to compare The Gilded Age with Julian Fellowes' most prominent and beloved creation, Downton Abbey, but the similarity between the two shows' setups, with upstairs and downstairs action from wealthy characters and servants among a rarefied social milieu, make it impossible not to do so, and Gilded comes off worse. Perhaps the problem is that the show has so many characters that it's difficult to get invested in any particular one. Whereas Downtown focused on the travails of one family and its servants, Gilded focuses in on two grand houses and their staff and introduces us to dozens of other characters too, from the snooty queens of society to the working-class New Yorkers who ensure they get their newspapers and groceries.
Some of the actors do manage to make an impression: Carrie Coon is vivid as the society-invading Bertha Russell; Christine Baranski is arch as snobby Aunt Agnes (though unfortunately not as funny as her obvious counterpart, Downton's Maggie Smith). But many of the main characters are just dull and underwritten, including the character of Peggy -- a real pity since she's clearly meant to interject some racial consciousness into Gilded's society-so-White class politics. The microaggressions she suffers in the van Rhijn household and beyond are interesting, but hardly illuminating, and we simply don't spend enough time with Peggy to get to know her on a personal level. Thus, although Gilded takes place in an interesting time and place, and holds a certain soapish appeal, it's ultimately more of a mildly diverting spectacle than the sort of emotionally involving drama that becomes an instant classic.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the time period of The Gilded Age. How were things changing for New York City and the world when the show first began? How did capitalism and shifts in wealth change life for both the upper and the servant classes? How do the times change as the show goes on?
How could you find out more about the historical events that the series refers to and takes part in? How accurate do you think the show is, from a historical perspective? Does the inclusion of real-life characters like Stanford White and Mrs. Astor make the show seem more realistic?
What makes a show like this appealing? Is it the characters? The setting? The period costumes? The fictionalized history? Do you think there's infinite potential in a series like this, or can the stories eventually run their course?
- Premiere date: January 24, 2022
- Cast: Christine Baranski, Taissa Farmiga, Cynthia Nixon
- Network: HBO
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- TV rating: TV-MA
- Last updated: May 19, 2023
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