Welcome to the Gilded Age of New York, where the exquisite mansions of high society are filled with women in fancy frocks and gents who buy, sell, and destroy their fellow men. Created by Downton Abbey mastermind Julian Fellowes, HBO’s The Gilded Age delves into the upper echelons of the Upper East Side back when Park Ave. was overrun with horse carriages. It is here that the drama is high and the stakes are higher, especially for HBO as they place their bets on this lavish period piece about the Big Apple in the 19th century.
The series follows recently-orphaned Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) as she takes up residence with her aunts Agnes (Christine Baranski) and Ada (Cynthia Nixon). The duo guides the Pennsylvania ragamuffin through “fashionable society,” showing both her and the audience the ropes while delivering exposition with poise and grace.
Much like Downton, wealth is at the center of the story. The central theme of the nouveau riche colliding with old money is represented by the Russell family, who aim to take their place in the gleaming beau monde at any cost while the upper crust attempt to keep a stranglehold on the traditional ways.
Like Fellowes’ other period pieces, interest and intrigue emerges from exploration of societal norms of the time, a forgotten culture whose ways will seem completely foreign to viewers. And though its British cousin Downton was also filled with showy set pieces and elaborate costumes, The Gilded Age is a bit more brash, a tad more opulent, and just a smidge more ostentatious than its predecessor. This is a show that hemorrhages money and it shows. It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears, giving exquisite detail to those who populate its story, marked by remarkable turns from Branski, Nixon, and Carrie Coons, who plays the social climbing Bertha Russell.
The Gilded Age is an beguiling soap opera masquerading as a period piece that plays on societal norms for drama. Those who prefer conflict with higher stakes than that of a dinner snub or a discarded invite might feel like something’s missing, but the HBO series will please those who loved Downton and have a deep appreciation for the finer things in life. (New episodes air every Monday thru March 21st).
Vikings: Valhalla (Netflix) is the spin-off from the History Channel’s Vikings and it continues to follow the adventures of historic heroes whose antics put Scandinavia on the map (at least prior to their illustrious legacy of DIY furniture and meatballs). Guaranteed to raise testosterone levels, the show is an intriguing blend of faux history, impressive action, and absorbing drama.
Created by Jeb Stuart, best known for scripting action outings such as The Fugitive and Die Hard, the show reeks of machismo, mead, and sea water. Set 100 years from the events of the first Vikings series, it’s a tawdry tale set in the annals of history, though very little of the interpersonal stories are actually based on real life.
The show begins just as legendary explorer Leif Erikkson (Sam Corlett) and his sister Freydis (Frida Gustavsson) arrive in Kattegat. It’s an inauspicious time, just as other Norsemen gather following the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, ordered by King Æthelred. Though the groups are there for different reasons, both have a common goal: revenge. Soon, Erikkson finds his life intertwined with these strange Norsemen who are similar yet oh-so-different, particularly those they call Christians.
The show follows a familiar formula used in most modern “historical” epics: take a familiar name from the past, build him/her up as the hero, add an interesting supporting cast that have little or no issues with nudity and/or violence, and let history take its course. Valhalla takes a page from the Game of Thrones playbook which states: As long as the adventure is exciting, the nudity is commonplace, and the violence is gratuitous, a show can get away with pretty much anything.
Valhalla’s biography and butchery is good enough to hold the interest of folks who don’t mind more fiction than facts in their historical dramas, and prefer bloody beatdowns, bodice rippings and unwashed romps to accuracy or reality. (Season 1 is available to binge in its entirety now).
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Season 4) / Amazon Prime
The marvelous, mischievous, and sometimes misguided Mrs. Maisel has returned after a long absence, but was she worth the wait?
Picking up right where we left off, Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) returns home to New York after being thrown out on her tuchus from Shy Baldwin’s tour after she alluded to his “illicit” lifestyle in her act. She returns home to deal with her fractured family, including her homeless parents, her ex-husband Joel, her son Ethan, and a daughter who is only mentioned in the series when it is convenient to the plot. This season, we watch the further evolution of Midge from ditched housewife to budding comic as she struggles with more mishaps of her own making.
After four seasons, it’s difficult to know where to stand with the Mrs. Maisel character. Yes, she is paving the way for every headstrong, mouthy, size 2 housewife with an ax to grind, but she’s also, at times, just not a very pleasant human being. For example, when Shy shared a very personal part of himself to her, it was a touching moment between the two entertainers. Only to be ruined later when Midge worked it into her act with no regard to Shy. And while she attempts to make good on her prior bad acts by helping her manager Susie (Alex Borstein) find a “friend” –with the help of John Waters, no less– she comes off self-centered, with a lack of consideration for her cohort’s desire to even “come out” or the implications of what could mean.
It’s a common theme with these Amy Sherman-Palladino women. They can be charming and adorable with mouths that run a mile a minute, but you never know when they are going to turn on you like a Benedict Arnold in a French heel. Regardless, the whip-smart writing that audiences have come to expect from hat enthusiast Sherman-Palladino is still there and still as sharp as ever. And while the cringe factor on Midge might grow slightly, her supporting players including Borstein, Tony Shalhoub as father Abe (now a writer at our sister paper The Village Voice!) and Marin Hinkle as mom Rose (a full-fledged match-maker this season) are still a friggin’ joy to watch.
As this season continues, it looks like the character of Miriam Maisel is still learning and maybe even morphing into something new. That might not be an entirely good thing, at least for those who prefer their main characters to be made of lollipops and sunshine, but it is entirely appropriate. What she becomes might not be so marvelous, but change is to be expected in an industry known to transform people from nice gals to assholes overnight. Welcome to showbiz, baby. (Two episodes are released every Friday for four weeks)