Julian Fellows’ The Gilded Age is panned by critics and branded ‘sheer agony’

While viewers have enjoyed Julian Fellowes’ the Gilded Age as a welcome distraction from the January and Covid doom and gloom, critics have not been charmed by the producer’s grand New Yorker extravaganza. 

The show, which premiered in the US on Monday and in the UK on HBO and Sky Atlantic last night, follows the tribulations of 5th Avenue’s nouveaux riche and old money residents in 1882 New York, pitting the social climbing Russell family against the old money Van Rhijn-Brook household. 

Twelve years in the making, it was touted as the American Downton Abbey, inspired by the upstairs-downstairs dynamic of Fellowes’ massively successful brainchild, which ran for six seasons and spawned two movies. 

But while Downton Abbey’s pastoral subject matters have charmed critics in the past, the Gilded Age’s much anticipated debut gathered some not-so-shining reviews, including a savaging from the New York Times, branding it a dime-store Downton, verging on caricature.  

Meanwhile, the Guardian was equally as brutal, writing the show was ‘sheer agony’ filled with ‘drivelling redundancy.’ 

The Gilded Age, Julian Fellowes new period drama, set in 1882’s New York, premiered on HBO and Sky Atlantic last night, and received mixed reviews. Pictured: Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski as old money spinsters Aida Brook and Agnes Van Rhijn

Even more positive reviews from the likes of the Telegraph, which awarded the show four stars, said that it lacked the humour and warmth of its predecessor. 

And The Independent conceded the Gilded Age is ‘perfectly watchable’ as it gave three out of five stars, but called it ‘bloated’ and ‘broad-brush.’

In the 77-minute-long pilot, viewers were also introduced to Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a black woman who befriends the ingenue Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson)  as she travels to stay with her aunts in New York. 

Scott is eventually hired by Marian’s aunt, Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and reviewers noted it gave Fellowes materials to explore race relations in turn-of-the-century New York. 

However, The Independent said this plot point felt forced, adding:  ‘You slightly get the impression this aspect has been tacked on, and that really Fellowes would prefer to focus on what he does best, which is straight white people getting upset about table settings.’

Here, FEMAIL dissects the show’s mixed reviews so you don’t have to. 

The New York Times dubbed the show 'dime store Downton' while in the UK, the Guardian called it 'sheer agony.' Pictured: Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon as George and Bertha Russell, a social climbing couple

The New York Times dubbed the show ‘dime store Downton’ while in the UK, the Guardian called it ‘sheer agony.’ Pictured: Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon as George and Bertha Russell, a social climbing couple 

The New York Times 

The New York Times was amongst the harshest Gilded Age critics, with Mike Tale writing the show ‘looks like a slacker and more superficial rehashing of character types and situations familiar from the earlier series.’ 

He particularly regretted the show’s dialogue and claimed its character lack development, which he said were one-note. 

He also pointed out the show feels as is Fellowes’ heart is not in it, due to the subpar dialogue and cliched plot adding even the star-studded cast won’t save the show from the obvious dialogue.  

‘In general, the conservatism and provincialism of the old guard is so overdrawn, and presented with such little context, that the society women seem like they’re from outer space, and the actresses playing them can’t do much to make them human,’ he added.  

He also regretted that the show’s first episode only seem to focus on a small portion of 1880s’ New York’s social scene, making the intrigue feel even smaller than Downton’s which focused only on one family and their servants. 

And the both sets of servants featured in The Gilded Age were deemed ‘superfluous’ to the plot by the New York Time reviewer. 

He also said the Gilded Age presented a ‘muddled and slapdash portrait’ and a tale that bordered on caricature. 

The fact the facades of the lavish mansions the characters allegedly inhabit in the show are enhanced with graphics means it lacks authenticity, Tale added.

The Guardian  

Giving it a scathing one star out of five rating in her review for The Guardian, Lucy Mangan disliked the period drama to call it ‘sheer agony.’

She said the dialogue is plagued with ‘drivelling redundancy,’ going as far as to compare the show to a new strain og coronavirus and advising viewers to arm themselves with PPE.  

She added it felt like Fellowes had ‘churned’ the show was sleeping, and that the end result was not credible. 

The Times

Writing for the Times, James Jackson gave the new period sensation a much more favourable review. 

He conceded that while the show was not without fault, it was easy to watch and enjoyable. 

He particularly praised Fellowes’ ability of ‘introducing you to characters without you noticing that you’re listening to 90 per cent expositional dialogue.’

However, he noted that fans of Downton Abbey might struggle to warm up to its American cousin. 

‘The Gilded Age may prove too soapy for Edith Wharton fans and possibly not cosy enough for Downton Abbey ones,’ he wrote.  

While he tempered the pilot ran for too long, Jackson still crowned The Gilded Age a success. 

‘This was an assured if overlong start, and it’ll be interesting to see if America takes to its own heritage in the way it does Britain’s posho dramas,’ he wrote. 

The Telegraph 

The Telegraph also gave The Gilded Age a positive review, but noted it is unlikely to charm viewers the way Downton did.

‘Will it be beloved, like Downton Abbey? No, because it lacks both that show’s warmth and humour,’ Anita Singh wrote. 

She also noted the characters were not as likeable as the ones in the Yorkshire-based drama.  

‘Almost every character in Downton had likeable qualities, but that can be said of only a couple in The Gilded Age,’ she added. 

She particularly noted that the character of Bertha Russell, who is yearning for upward mobility, is unlikely to be liked by UK viewers, because British people dislike individuals who try too hard.   

The Independent

Writing for the Independent, Ed Cumming jested: ‘Gilded the age may be, but solid gold this is not.

He admitted the show was ‘perfectly watchable’ but lacked what made Downton’s success.  

You slightly get the impression this aspect has been tacked on, and that really Fellowes would prefer to focus on what he does best, which is straight white people getting upset about table settings.  

‘The Gilded Age would like you to think it is a missing Henry James novel, but it feels broad-brush by comparison,’ he added.

Critic Dave Nemetz described the first four episodes of the series as a triumph of style over substance, unless you watch TV to ‘gawk at chandeliers’ and will enjoy a ‘feast for the eyes’.

Comparing The Gilded Age to the huge success of Downton in the US, he said it feels ‘cynically calibrated’ to strike the same note, but misses the mark. 

‘Unfortunately, the storytelling isn’t as rich, plagued by dull plotting and broadly drawn characters,’ he said. 

‘This show follows the formula of a classy costume drama so closely, it verges on self-parody; it’s like a fake TV show that a character on another TV show would watch.’

He also criticized the number of characters and the plot focusing on ‘tedious boardroom dealings — railroad deals and stock manipulation do not make for exciting television — and weepy melodrama’.  

Wall Street Journal

In its review, the Wall Street Journal dubbed the show a ‘recycling effort by creator-writer-producer Julian Fellowes.’

Writer John Anderson noted the Gilded Age’s characters are clichés, ‘not unpleasant but wholly unsurprising.’

He added the Russell family are ‘the least believable characters in the series,’ and hinted their story act does not get better as the first episodes play out. 


Alan Sepinwall, confession himself to be a die hard Downton Fan, gave the show a decent three stars, but couldn’t help making comparisons between the two, saying the former had an ‘elegant simplicity’ while The Gilded Age is a ‘messy sprawl’.  

I have to wonder if the die-hards will look at this as something that should be perfectly pleasing, but that doesn’t look quite right to the trained eye.


Collider gave a positive review of the show overall, however, it noted: ‘It’s spinning its wheels rather than chugging full-steam ahead.

Looking into the first episode, reviewer Carly Lane admitted that the illustrious cast’s talent gets overshadowed by the exposition that happens when introducing so many characters at once. 

‘There’s a lot of time that gets afforded to establishing where everyone is in their respective lives, and it’s definitely groundwork that does need to be laid, but it sometimes happens at the cost of driving the plot forward in significant ways,’ she wrote. 

However, she said the series gets better as it goes on, with bigger plot points generating more momentum. 

Later on, however, the series starts to generate more momentum, courtesy of bigger drama and more severe repercussions for certain characters’ actions, and it’s in those events that

establishes itself as a title wholly independent of any that might have come before — provided viewers are willing to wade through the filler to get to the substance.

In the US Downton, the worst snobs are the servants: CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews Julian Fellowes’s latest costume drama The Gilded Age


Sky Atlantic, last night 


Railroad tycoon George Russell has his feet up on the furniture. ‘Careful,’ warns his wife, ‘that table belonged to King Ludwig of Bavaria.’ 

George flashes a devil-may-care grin. ‘He had it once. I’ve got it now!’ he crows.

You can trust Julian Fellowes never to leave us in doubt about his intentions. 

The creator of Downton Abbey has returned with an even more lavish costume drama in The Gilded Age (Sky Atlantic) – and it’s all about New Money.

Set in New York, 1882, the overblown wealth was on display from the opening shot. 

The sisters have taken in their penniless niece Marian, Louisa Jacobson. Marian brings her new best friend to stay – the young black writer Peggy, Denee Benton (both pictured)

The sisters have taken in their penniless niece Marian, Louisa Jacobson. Marian brings her new best friend to stay – the young black writer Peggy, Denee Benton (both pictured)

Horse-drawn carts loaded with statues, chandeliers, antiques and grand pianos rolled up Fifth Avenue to the mansion commissioned by George and his ambitious wife Bertha (Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon).

But across the road, Old Money is in residence. Spiteful widow Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and her fluffy-headed younger sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) are surrounded by footmen and butlers – and the servants are even bigger snobs than the ladies.

The budget for The Gilded Age is a well-guarded secret, but to judge from the spectacular computer graphics that recreate New York 140 years ago, this production would make a hole in any family fortune.

Fans of Downton will be hoping for complicated romantic entanglements, and, of course, Cupid is hovering. 

The sisters have taken in their penniless niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), whose no-good papa (their brother) has wasted their inheritance.

Meanwhile, the Russells’ raffish son Larry, played by Harry Richardson, is enjoying the high life – and Marian has already caught his wandering eye.

But the emphasis is on the older female characters. Bertha is a social climber who makes no secret of her desire to be a queen of the New York party world.

‘She has imagination, taste and nerve,’ boasts hubby George, whose chief job is to roll his eyes at his wife’s extravagance and sign the cheques.

At the climax of this opening double episode, Bertha threw an opulent soiree, her table piled high with lobsters spitted on swords like seafood kebabs. 

Nobody came – certainly not Agnes and Ada. ‘We only see the old people in this house, not the new,’ proclaimed Mrs van Rhijn.

How out of joint her stuck-up nose will be when she learns the shocking truth about her disreputable son Oscar, who keeps a barrel-chested blond sportsman in his apartment for frisky fun after the day’s parties are over.

Agnes is confronted in other ways by the changing times, as Marian brings her new best friend to stay – the young black writer Peggy, (Denee Benton) an aspiring novelist twice as clever as any of the other characters.

It takes Peggy all of two minutes to win Agnes over, and land a job as her live-in secretary. She has to sleep in the servants’ quarters, though, and one or two of the maids are not quite sure what to think.

Amid this rush of faces, we barely had time to get to know the below-stairs staff. Simon Jones presides over the van Rhijn residence as butler Mr Bannister, and he already has a catchphrase: ‘It is not for us to have an opinion.’

Across the street, conniving housekeeper Mrs Turner (Kelley Curran) seems to be setting her cap at Mr Russell. 

If Bertha catches wind of that, which she undoubtedly will, the saucy servant might end up speared with a lobster stick.

With so much scene setting, the story was slow to get going. It’s very different to Lord Fellowes’s last drama, Belgravia, which packed the whole of the Battle of Waterloo and a wedding into its opening sequence.

But the good lord enjoys all the fancy dress history so hugely that it is impossible not to be carried along.

‘Did you hear they shot Jesse James?’ cries Mr Russell. ‘Good evening, Mr and Mrs Roosevelt,’ calls a footman.

Celebrities, billionaires and pots of money – this is reality TV from the steam railway era.

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