Julian Fellowes hunted for ten years on his new series, ‘The Gilded Age’. Call it his white whale. From Monday on HBO, you can watch it drag him and a large, talented cast beneath the waves.
What would become “The Gilded Age” began in 2012 as Fellowes’ idea for a prequel to his “Downton Abbey,” the British upstairs and downstairs costume drama that was a massive hit for PBS in the United States. The early years of “Downton” were a smooth, charming mix of family melodrama and pastoral comedy, but the charm faded and the ingenuity grew over the course of six seasons, and by the time the series ended in 2015, the idea of a spin-off had begun. off what lost. of its brilliance.
However, Fellowes persisted even though he wrote other series such as the highly entertaining Georgian drama “Belgravia” (2020). “The Gilded Age” was hanging around, switching networks (from NBC to HBO) and, when it finally started filming, went through a pandemic slowdown. After all this time, it’s sad to report that, while no longer a “Downton” prequel, the show looks like a slacker and more superficial iteration of character types and situations familiar from the earlier series. (Five out of nine episodes were available.) Maybe all that time had something to do with it.
Set in New York in 1882 (about 30 years after “Moby-Dick” was published there), the series begins when a new-money family, the Russells, move into their Stanford White-designed mansion on Fifth Avenue. , across the street from the less luxurious but more respectable home of old money sisters Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon).
George Russell (Morgan Spector) is a Vanderbilt-style railroad tycoon and robber baron, and his wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon), is fiercely committed to making her way into New York society. Their arrival status is immediately established, with the appearance of wagons carrying crates of sculptures believed to have been looted from European homes and churches.
This is Henry James and Edith Wharton’s territory, and Fellowes does not shy away from comparisons. A scene set in the Academy of Music, once New York’s premier opera house, directly evokes Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence”; a scene in which a mercenary is sent away is straight out of James’ ‘Washington Square’ and his theatrical adaptation, ‘The Heiress’ by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.
And there’s an ingénue, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), Agnes and Ada’s niece, who is reminiscent of many young women in James and Wharton’s novels, though she’s not as innocent, tragic, or compelling as those models. She arrives at her aunts’ house to serve as the public’s surrogate and spark some romantic interest in counterpoint to the genteel but brutal social and economic warfare that forms the central story. Through highly unlikely circumstances, she also brings with her an aspiring writer, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a young black woman who becomes Agnes’ secretary and allows Fellowes to explain race alongside class and gender in his portrait of 19th-century New York.
It is, however, a disheveled and disheveled portrait – a thin gloss on its superior sources that consistently delves into caricature. Fellowes’s heart seems not to have been in it; his ear certainly wasn’t, “They own the future, men like Mr. Russell,” we’re told, and “You’re a New Yorker now…and for a New Yorker, anything is possible,” and on the other hand : “You belong to old New York, my love, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!”
The store-borne dialogue fits the largely monotonous characterizations, seen most blatantly in the hidden widow Agnes, who seems to have no thoughts beyond her distaste for the nouveau riche. In general, the conservatism and provincialism of the old guard is so exaggerated and presented with so little context, that society’s women seem like they come from outer space, and the actresses they play can’t do much to make them human. .
One of the glories of ‘Downton’ was, of course, the excellence of its performers, many of whom were not well known beforehand in the United States. HBO has put together an all-star cast for “The Gilded Age,” but most of the actors fall victim to the material’s obviousness. Baranski’s usual brilliance is muted; she’s the designated zinger deliverer, like Maggie Smith in “Downton,” but the effect isn’t there. Nixon tries his best, but can’t find anything consistent to play in Ada, who is always on the verge of becoming a hysterical caricature. Bertha is a slightly more rounded character – the story is generally more sympathetic to the people of the future – but her grim social climbing isn’t that much more interesting than Agnes’ snobbery, and Coon seems just as awkward as her castmates. Other performers go straight into heists, such as Nathan Lane as social arbitrator Ward McAllister.
However, there is an awful lot of talent on screen and some performers are registering in smaller roles. Kelli O’Hara is good as a woman from society desperately trying to bridge the gap between old and new. Audra McDonald radiates strength and compassion as Peggy’s concerned mother. And Sullivan Jones brings the show to life in a brief appearance as the editor of a black newspaper that publishes Peggy’s writings.
In ‘Downton’, Fellowes managed to take out the larger world and anchor his story in the daily rhythms of one family and one estate. In “The Gilded Age” he lets the world in, and yet everything seems smaller. The housekeepers make the same soap opera moves as in “Downton” but feel superfluous in the story; New York’s social circle is called the 400, but here it feels more like the 12 or 15. And while the costumes and interiors are lavish, Fifth Avenue’s streetscapes are now back structures worked out with computer graphics—you don’t even get the authentic glory of the mansion. As the Countess of Grantham said, things are different in America.