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The collision of old and new money is on glitzy display in HBO's 'Gilded Age'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. "The Gilded Age," which premieres Monday on HBO, is a 10-part costume drama series co-created and co-written by Julian Fellowes and Sonja Warfield. Fellowes created and wrote "Downton Abbey," and "The Gilded Age" is basically the American "Downton Abbey." And somewhat surprisingly, it works very, very nicely. The series is set in the early 1880s in New York City. It's not the same gilded age story as in the book by Mark Twain, who coined the phrase that gave the era its name, the age of instant fortunes and the explosive growth of industry. But it's the same time period, and it blends its fictional characters with some historical figures, as did "Ragtime" and "Deadwood."

And when it comes to TV history, "The Gilded Age" recalls not only such period dramas as "Downton Abbey," but a couple of period costume dramas from the 1970s, the original "Upstairs, Downstairs" and the brief but brilliant "Beacon Hill." In "The Gilded Age," which begins in 1882, you get a few mentions of or appearances by some actual historical figures - architect Stanford White, Red Cross founder Clara Barton, Lady Astor, the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, and so on. But mostly, you get a whole host of original characters set up naturally for contrast and conflict - rich and poor, old money and new, power brokers and household workers. And very quickly, we get to know and care about all of them.

The central character of "The Gilded Age" is Marion Brook, a young woman living with her father in rural Pennsylvania. Marion is played by Louisa Jacobson, who looks and carries herself like a young Meryl Streep. I wrote that in my notes, then learned afterward that she actually is Meryl Streep's youngest daughter. We meet her as Marion, just after Marion's father, Henry, has died. The family solicitor, played by Thomas Cocquerel, calls her into his office to discuss the terms of her inheritance. The news is not good.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GILDED AGE")

THOMAS COCQUEREL: (As Tom Raikes) Ms. Brook, book, the plain fact is I've looked into the estate of the late Mr. Brook.

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

COCQUEREL: (As Tom Raikes) The late General Brook. 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, Ms. Brook.

JACOBSON: (As Marian Brook) I'm sure that's wrong.

COCQUEREL: (As Tom Raikes) No, I'm afraid not.

JACOBSON: (As Marian Brook) But my father always said - I see. So how much is left?

COCQUEREL: (As Tom Raikes) I've paid the funeral charges and other outstanding accounts, and 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.

JACOBSON: (As Marian Brook) You see, Mr. Raikes; none of this is what my father told me.

COCQUEREL: (As Tom Raikes) So I gather.

BIANCULLI: With no place else to go, Marian seeks refuge by traveling to New York City, the home of her father's two sisters, Ada and Agnes. This is where "The Gilded Age" could have gone off the rails because the sisters are played by big-name actresses who might have shattered the illusion. But instead, they cement it. Ada is portrayed sweetly and humorously by Cynthia Nixon, and Agnes, the society matron who despises the newly wealthy people moving into her Fifth Avenue neighborhood, is played to dry perfection by Christine Baranski.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GILDED AGE")

CYNTHIA NIXON: (As Ada Brook) What did she say?

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: (As Agnes van Rhijn) She thanks you for the letter that you did not show me and for the tickets that you purchased without my knowledge. She means to join us here just as soon as she has closed the house and sold her furniture.

NIXON: (As Ada Brook) What a relief.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes van Rhijn) A relief. And who is to support her? Exactly - me with the van Rhijn money, which was not achieved at no cost to myself. You were allowed the pure and tranquil life of a spinster. I was not.

NIXON: (As Ada Brook) I'm very grateful.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes van Rhijn) So you should be.

NIXON: (As Ada Brook) Well, I'm glad she's coming. And if my letter played a part in her decision, then I'm glad I sent it.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes van Rhijn) I doubt it was your letter. More likely, she has discovered her father left her without a penny to her name. Henry couldn't provide for a dog in a ditch. He never kept a dollar in his pocket if there were women or drink within 500 miles.

NIXON: (As Ada Brook) Agnes, our brother has died.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes van Rhijn) Our brother with whom we have had no connection these many years.

NIXON: (As Ada Brook) We should have gone for the funeral anyway.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes van Rhijn) It wasn't worth an uncomfortable day of travel to make sure Henry was dead.

BIANCULLI: Elsewhere in "The Gilded Age," Denee Benton plays Peggy, a young Black woman who wants to be a writer. She has to fight for almost everything, even within her Brooklyn family, and the prejudice she encounters is a meaty new subplot for Fellowes to explore. Another character, the ruthless tycoon George Russell, played by Morgan Spector, has made a fortune - a new one - by building railroads. But the old society types, including Agnes, refused to accept him. This particularly angers his wife Bertha, who, like her husband, is used to getting her way. She's played by the superb Carrie Coon, who was so fabulous in "The Leftovers" and her season of TV's "Fargo" and is fabulous again here. In this scene, she's overseeing the move into her opulent new mansion while welcoming her son home from college. Her son doesn't want to stay long.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GILDED AGE")

HARRY RICHARDSON: (As Larry Russell) But I should get going. I'm catching the 11 o'clock train to Rhode Island.

CARRIE COON: (As Bertha Russell) But you've only just got home.

RICHARDSON: (As Larry Russell) Is that what is it?

COON: (As Bertha Russell) Well, take a later train, at least. We haven't seen you all semester.

RICHARDSON: (As Larry Russell) But it'll be fun. It's the one Mrs. Fish (ph) told us to catch, and most of the party are traveling on it.

COON: (As Bertha Russell) Who is in the party? Do you know?

RICHARDSON: (As Larry Russell) The usual crowd - Ogden Goelet and his wife, the Joneses, the Wilsons, Carrie Astor.

COON: (As Bertha Russell) Carrie Astor.

RICHARDSON: (As Larry Russell) I think so.

COON: (As Bertha Russell) Do you know her? You never said.

RICHARDSON: (As Larry Russell) I don't - not really, not much.

COON: (As Bertha Russell) Then get to know her, and catch that train.

RICHARDSON: (As Larry Russell) Mother.

COON: (As Bertha Russell) I know what I'm doing.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We finished the gilding in the ballroom, Mrs. Russell.

COON: (As Bertha Russell) No. You think you finished the gilding, Mr. Kowalski. But nothing is finished till I decide.

RICHARDSON: (As Larry Russell) I'm going, Mother. Where's Gladys?

COON: (As Bertha Russell) Why?

RICHARDSON: (As Larry Russell) I want to say goodbye to her.

COON: (As Bertha Russell) I'll say it for you. She's gone to the park with Miss Grant.

RICHARDSON: (As Larry Russell) She's not a child anymore, and you shouldn't treat her as one.

COON: (As Bertha Russell) She's a child until I say.

BIANCULLI: It takes most of the first episode to introduce and establish these characters. But once that's done, the drama shifts into high gear, and you completely buy into all of the players, even the most familiar stars, as their characters. And another dazzling star in "The Gilded Age" is the setting of New York itself, circa 1882. Indoors, we see the opulent rooms and meals that made "Downton Abbey" so much of a visual treat. And when "The Gilded Age" ventures outdoors, we see Fifth Avenue, only retrofitted with muddy streets. We see Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, only it's relatively new. And we see the arm and torch of what eventually would become the Statue of Liberty on display as a fundraiser to gather the necessary donations to secure and transport the entire statue.

It's a fascinating time in the history of the city and our country. And co-writers Fellowes and Warfield have lots of fun with it and with its characters who, as in "Downton Abbey," all establish their own personalities and desires. Give "The Gilded Age" a chance, and I predict you'll have fun with it, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, we consider the life and work of Buster Keaton. By the age of 5, he was a star in his family's knockabout vaudeville act. He went on to direct and star in silent films, performing jaw-dropping, dangerous stunts. Many film historians regard his movies as works of genius. Seven of Keaton's silent films are on the National Film Registry. We speak with Slate film critic Dana Stevens, who's written a new book about Keaton. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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