Stand at what I believe is the center of the universe, 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, and you can see the impact of John D Rockefeller up and down the road as you stare off into the distance. Heck, the building you are at is named after the man. It’s the birthplace of television broadcasting. All the stars, formats, and major TV memories that launched television came from that building. And before that, it played the same role in birthing radio as an industry. That building shaped the city with its iconic architecture, while shaping America with its cultural output.

Walk around that building and you will see statues and design work that was added to the building thanks to Rockefellers wife Abby - a well-known patron of the arts. Tour the city and you will hear that Rockefeller name a lot.

John Rockefeller was the world’s first billionaire and a lot of his money went into New York. His wealth was the product of the gilded age, a time in which America experienced an influx of wealth. It was a growing nation and Rockefeller was there to capitalise on it. He was what was seen at the time as new money. He didn’t get rich the traditional, respected way through inheritance - he earned it himself.

While Rockefeller isn’t a character in the new HBO drama The Gilded Age, it is the social world that surrounded the Rockefellers and the new money barons who gave shape and form to the America we know today. It is the story of the rise in high society of families like the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, etc. The spectre that hangs over this series is the idea that in the modern era we know who those wealthy families are and consider their contribution to the world today. Whereas the old money families warrant barely a consideration today.

This is a fantastically fertile time period during which to set a show and the show absolutely lives up to that potential.

Our entry to the series is the young Marian Brook. We’re in the 1880s and her father has just died, leaving her penniless. It comes as quite the shock to her when she learns that the family home was rented and she now has just dollars to her name. Without any options, Marian travels from her home in Doylestown Pennsylvania to New York to live with her aunts who open their home to Marian despite decades-old hostility with her father. On the way to New York, Marian crosses paths with Peggy Scott, an African American girl of the same age who is reluctantly heading home to see (and preferably avoid) her family.

Marian’s family is very much old money. The way her aunts, played by Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon, quietly laugh when Marian suggests that she might get a job is telling. They’re not horrible people, they’re just monied. Similarly telling is that when Marian turns up on their doorstep with Peggy, the aunts are surprised, but very open and welcoming. She is even offered a job and board in the home, much to the consternation of some of the other staff in the house.

It's interesting to see the openness of the wealthy homeowners accepting this young African American girl into their home, but it is the working staff who have an issue with her presence. Their concern is that African Americans are there to take their jobs, but the wealthy elites have no such concern. It's an interesting comment that holds up in a liberal New York setting, but it is an idea that gets far more complicated in most other 1880s-era cities across the US.

Outside of their home, we are introduced to Bertha Russell, played by the great Carrie Coon. She is very much new money with a husband who has earned his way into wealth and privilege through above board, but morally questionable business practices. Bertha is very keen to enter the world of high society, but struggles to find a way in - the women at these sorts of functions have no interest in consorting with such low-value society wannabes.

And that's where the tension of the show exists. Can the old money Aunt Agnes (Christine Baranski) quite literally cross the street to accept her new neighbour, the new-monied Bertha Russell?

Originally developed for NBC, The Gilded Age abandoned its old-money TV network for the new-money greener pastures of cable and streaming at HBO where the show has been lavished with what has to have been an obscenely large budget and the sort of cast that attracts.  

While the show has the occasional moment of (admittedly well-executed) green screen work, the show has built lavish sets and outdoor streetscapes that brings to life New York City in the 1880s. Most viewers will not recognise these as sets - it is an incredible feat that the production team have accomplished and it goes a long way to building the authenticity of this world.

Authenticity is really the key to this series. The engagement with the show demands that the audience is able to make the connection between the high class world of these families, with all of their monied concerns, and the modern world. It gives what are otherwise inconsequential concerns like social climbing some real gravitas. Make the world of the show look and feel real, and it becomes far easier to make that real-world connection.

Unlike the high society that Bertha Russell is struggling to find her way into, The Gilded Age presents no such concern for its viewers. The Gilded Age is a sumptuous television experience that combines classic period era television with the complexity we expect from an HBO production. It tells the story of high society social construction, but what we are really watching is the birth of a modern America fuelled by an excess of wealth, gossip, and entitlement.

The Gilded Age is absorbing, smart, and wonderful-looking television.

The Gilded Age is streaming now on HBO Max in the US and in Australia on Paramount+.