How ‘The Gilded Age’ on HBO Fails in the Chaotic Era it Depicts

In HBO’s “The Gilded Age”, Julian “Downton Abbey” Fellowes transfers his interest in rich people and the people who serve them from early 20th century England to late 19th century New York. Once again, it’s an up-down, extravagantly dressed soap opera set against a backdrop of social change, as a self-proclaimed aristocracy in love with its own blood clashes with modernity, including a younger generation less interested in the way their parents do things.

Louisa Jacobson (the third actress daughter of Meryl Streep) plays Marian, who we meet in rural Pennsylvania, and finds out that all that’s left of her late father’s estate is $30. With nowhere to live and nothing to live on, or any apparent skills or prospects, she goes to New York City and protects her aunts Agnes (Christine Baranski) and Ada (Cynthia Nixon), from whom she is estranged. (It’s reversed like “Cold Comfort Farm”.) As she sets off, her wallet, money, and tickets are stolen; she is lent train tickets by Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a black Brooklyn woman whose Doylestown, Pennsylvania, business leaves an unspoken mystery during the five episodes (out of nine) released for review.

The narrative ease of a storm that halted the ferry service to Brooklyn, combined with Marian’s indebtedness and good soul, and the fact that for some reason Peggy is reluctant to return to her parents’ house, brings them together at her home. aunts on Fifth Avenue. Here, with excellent handwriting, knowledge of shorthand and an educational background, Peggy – who aspires to be a writer, like Jo in “Little Women” – becomes the secretary to Aunt Agnes, a widow whose wealth Agnes likes to point to Ada, were “not without cost for myself”, while Ada was allowed to lead “the pure and quiet life of a spinster”.

Across the street, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 61st Street—to the chagrin of Aunt Agnes but to the interest of Aunt Ada—the scaffolding comes down to the just-completed mansion of the Russells, who bring “new people,” that is, money. (“We only receive the old people in this house, not the new ones,” says Agnes, proud of her pre-revolutionary roots.) George Russell (Morgan Spector), the image of a “robber baron”, as an unusual handsome, sits on the railroad tracks.The house, “big enough to be beautiful without being cramped”—and less ostentatious than some of the real Fifth Avenue mansions of the era—is the work of his wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon ), under the close supervision of the historic Stanford White, Bertha hopes her home, if you can call it that, will become the portal through which she accesses the city’s innermost social circle.

Obviously Fellowes has done research – indeed it tends to sit on top of the story, like sprinkles, rather than being baked into the cake itself – but research doesn’t automatically translate into drama. Regardless of the combination of script, production, direction and execution, of mannered expression and dialogue that avoids contractions, “The Gilded Age” feels remarkably inert, even bleak, for a story set in America’s most exciting city during a period of turmoil. (There are plenty of documentaries and lectures about the era to be found online, many of which are more stimulating than this reconstruction.)

A mishmash of contemporary practices, mores and historical tidbits is duly served: political bribery and stock manipulation; charity as a way to buy a favor; croquet and badminton in Newport; fashionable French chef; tenement; Broadway pronounced with the accent on “way”; the question of whether the new opera house, supported by the new people, will displace the venerable Academy of Music from the old people – an issue which, I find, is addressed in the second paragraph of Edith Wharton’s ‘The Age of Innocence’. (You can almost smell the yellow highlighter.) There are indeed times when “The Gilded Age” feels like fan service—for Martin Scorsese’s movie of Wharton’s book. Real people of history include black newspaper editor T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones), American Red Cross founder Clara Barton (Linda Emond); social gatekeeper Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy), and her gatekeeper Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), who came up with the whole hideous idea of ​​’the 400′, beautiful people who wouldn’t feel uncomfortable in each other’s presence.

If it’s not entirely fair to look at “The Gilded Age” through the lens of “Downton Abbey”, it’s also hard not to. (There are also similarities with Fellowes’ more vivid 2020 limited series “Belgravia,” based on his own novel, about the meeting of merchant and aristocratic classes in early 19th-century London.) As a propagator of arch commentary, throwing in her lot with a more genteel, ordered past—which Fellowes, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, seems generally sympathetic to—Aunt Agnes succeeds Maggie Smith’s widowed Countess in ‘Downton Abbey’, but less so funny. Not that “The Gilded Age” has any responsibility for being funny, but humor is part of what made “Downton Abbey” so watchable, and even when characters say things that should be funny, they often pass out.

Another reason “Downton Abbey” worked so well is that it’s a big show painted on a small canvas; Despite several invaders in history, it is parochial and provincial and intimate, like a Jane Austen novel, centered on a single family and its keepers. Perhaps fitting for the style of the time, The Gilded Age is overcrowded—two houses, not equal in dignity, separated by a dirt stretch of 61st Street, each with its family, associates, and staff (neither has much in the way of it). area of ​​friends). As a result, many of the storylines are rendered in shorthand, with characters appearing to have been created more as historical bullet points—to express a type or an opinion—than as full-fledged individuals.

Louisa Jacobson, left, and Denée Benton in ‘The Gilded Age’.

(Alison Cohen Rosa / HBO)

Likewise, the relationship between Marian and Peggy, unusually enough in its historical context, may lead a viewer to wonder why it isn’t getting more comment. Racial matters are for the most part treated superficially or predictably, such as when Peggy meets the editor of a white publication before the series moves on to other matters.

To be fair, Fellowes tries to give his main characters some breadth – something like two and a half dimensions. Aunt Agnes is old-fashioned but takes Peggy into her household without thinking twice; she reserves her prejudice for the nouveau riche. Ada seems woolly and childish, but she’s also the lead voice of the series on what a modern audience would consider wisdom, and the fact that you feel like she’s in constant danger of getting hurt makes it easy to get emotional in her. to invest. George Russell is professionally ruthless, but a more relaxed parent than his wife, whom he loves, and whose social ambitions he indulges; Spector, with the appearance of a John Singer Sargent portrait that has left the frame, plays him as a leading man.

As for Bertha, other than being outright rejected as a ‘daughter of the potato harvester’ and a little hurt by people she doesn’t like, but whose club she wants to join, there’s little sympathy in her character; although she’s not much of a villain, she’s essentially soulless and often obnoxious, and while she’s one of the few figures here driven by an unrealized ambition, it’s hard to care if she achieves it. (Is someone coming to the big ball Bertha throws to inaugurate her palace on Fifth Avenue? You already know the answer.) “I’ll never give up! And I promise you this, I’ll make them regret it one day,” Bertha declares after a great disappointment, much like Scarlett O’Hara on Tara’s steps.

The clash of one class of wealthy snobs and another class of rich snobs hardly deserves to take sides, and many of the younger (and poorer) characters – including Agnes’ scheming son (Blake Ruston), the daughter of the Russells (Taissa Farmiga) and Bertha’s ambitious girl (Kelley Curran) – just isn’t original or lively enough to draw us into their fate.

Marian, for her part, has been given few ambitions, except “to be busy, to be needed, to be in a hurry”. “Unlike you,” she tells Peggy, “I have no burning talent that yearns to be free,” and her wording miraculously anticipated by a year the composition of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” later associated with the Statue of Liberty. — whose torch-carrying hand, placed in Madison Square Park as some sort of fundraising teaser, will visit Marian.

The main question around her is whether she will accept the advances of Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel), a home lawyer who shows up in New York, or if something is going on with Larry Russell (Harry Richardson), the new one. .. money-rich kid across the street, whom she cutely meets about a runaway dog. (Neither would be acceptable to Agnes.) This may be a sufficiently accurate portrayal of a woman in her time and place, but it doesn’t do much for a heroine in a television drama.

Obviously in a show this big and expensive, there are performances and scenes that work. Simon Jones impresses as the aunts’ butler, as does Jeanne Tripplehorn as a woman more disapproved of than Bertha. A passage where Marian discovers that she has been naive about Peggy’s family life is quite effective and leads to a momentary rift between them; like many other things in the series, you wonder if it will develop into anything, but it gets lost in the incessant shuffle, like an individual in a New York crowd scene.

But whatever is going on with the characters, the show is always fun to watch; there is always a hat or dress to please the eye, a purpose built or authentic Victorian block of buildings to admire. (Troy, NY, provided much of the latter.) A view from New Jersey across the water to Manhattan, with a storm approaching, seems more painted than photographed—well, it is after all—and is very pretty.

With four unseen episodes, it’s not impossible for things to kick into high gear. There are hints of conspiracies and secrets among the servants. Although we will finally meet Peggy’s mother (Audra McDonald) and father (John Douglas Thompson), boxes have yet to be opened there. Bullets can grow into compelling stories, threadbare plot twists in unexpected ways and things become, if not exciting, at the very least interesting.

‘The Gilded Age’

True: HBO

When: 9 am Monday

Rating: TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17 years old)

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