About 10 years ago, NBC announced it had commissioned a drama from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes called The Gilded Age. In 2018, it looked like the series was going into production, but then it became an HBO property. Now, at long last, the drama actually arrives.
It is not the only significant production making its debut on Monday. Secrets of Playboy, a 10-part docu-series, also starts. That series seeks to explore the “dark underbelly” of the Playboy empire, with numerous former girlfriends of Hugh Hefner talking about how they were treated.
The two series are linked in a loose way. One is fiction that glorifies extreme wealth while playing slight attention to servants and underlings, and the other, a fact-based story, pays close attention to the women who were treated as servants. In an odd way, both are about the seediness of excess wealth. Both are also set in the mansions of the rich.
The Gilded Age (starts Monday HBO 9 p.m., streams Crave) is lavishly made but dull. You can see the Fellowes formula from the opening minutes. It’s Upstairs, Downstairs all over again, this time in 1880s New York. There’s old money and new money, but they all have servants we get to know a little. And it matters that the action takes place mainly at Fifth Avenue and 61st Street. Old-money socialite Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) lives there in a mansion with her unmarried sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) and rake of a son Oscar (Blake Ritson). Agnes is acid-tongued and Ada is mild-mannered and frets.
Across the street, railroad magnate George Russell (Morgan Spector) has built a new mansion, mainly to make sure his wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon), can live in the style to which she has become accustomed. Their family also includes Harvard-educated son Larry (Harry Richardson) and daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga). Once ensconced in her palace at a “good” address, Bertha plans to marry off Gladys to an old-money chap and conquer society. Along comes Agnes and Ada’s niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), who was left poor in Pennsylvania because her father, who has just died, frittered away his money. She must live with her aunts and arrives in New York with a new pal she met on the train, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a Black woman. Peggy was to be a writer and Agnes, amazingly, hires her as her secretary.
What unfolds, on the evidence of early episodes, is what you’d expect. Marriage is about money and connections and the only women with agency are the very rich, whether new or old money. Servants tend to be unreliable and everything takes place in a mansion. Now, I don’t want to seem censorious but it’s possible to take off the rose-coloured glasses and see The Gilded Age as utter tosh, with an English-based class system transposed to New York. And Fellowes treats women characters in particular as perambulating mannequins in splendid dresses.
Secrets of Playboy (starts Monday, A&E, 9 p.m., two episodes) is less an exposé than it is an amendment to Hugh Hefner’s legacy. When Hefner died in 2017, many obituaries treated him kindly, as an iconic figure who helped bring sexual liberation and was a champion of liberal causes. This series begins with the perspective of Jennifer Saginor. The daughter of Hefner’s personal doctor, she started living at the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles at the age of 11. She was in awe of the nightly parties, loved the relaxed atmosphere and felt pampered.
When she was 17, Hefner summoned her to his room and asked her to have group sex with him and a Playmate who was already in his bed. As others tell it – including long-time Hefner girlfriend Sondra Theodore and PJ Masten, who was once in charge of the Playboy Bunnies’ care at the mansion – Hefner demanded orgies five nights a week, the woman participating were often drugged, and Hefner’s temper, if he didn’t get his way, was frightening.
Essentially, as the series posits, Hefner felt he owned the women at the mansion. The debonair, easygoing exterior hid a viciousness and contempt for women. Miki Garcia, at one time the director of Playmate Promotions, says, “It was cultlike. The women had been groomed and led to believe they were part of this family. He really did believe he owned these women. We had Playmates that overdosed, that committed suicide.” Some of this was known before, but the series, while trying not to be lurid, wants to set the record straight on Hefner and emphasize that what happened at that mansion was usually squalid and dark.
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