TV series review: The Gilded Age – season 1 (HBO, 2022)
tl;dr: It’s beautiful to behold but lacks emotional connection and likeable characters.
Following on from the success of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes has set his sights on the other side of the pond, New York City in the early 1880s.
The show kicks off in Pennsylvania with young Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), whose father dies and, as lawyer Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel) explains to her, is left with a mere $30 to her name. Her father basically squandered the family fortune, which caused a rift between him and his sisters, but having nowhere else to go Marian decides to go to live with said aunts in the fashionable end of Manhattan. She starts her journey east by having her money stolen, and has her tickets paid for by a kind stranger, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), en route to see her parents (Audra McDonald and John Douglas Thompson).
In New York City, poor weather stops the East River ferries so Peggy has to stay the night. She ends up getting hired as a secretary to Marian’s Aunt Agnes, even though she really wants to write in a newspaper – except when newspapers realise she’s black, she’s usually shown the door.
Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) is a rich widow, Old Money™, living with her spinster sister Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), who is considerably more easygoing. Aunt Agnes tries hard to be the American equivalent of the Dowager Countess, but doesn’t have quite the same glint in her eye, or her wit.
Across the street from the Van Rhijn house a veritable palace has been erected. Moving in are the Russells, New Money™ boo hiss. George Russell (Morgan Spector) has made a lot of money from the railroad, and his wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) is trying hard to be accepted into the fancy New York society. Apparently money can only get you so far up the social ladder. Son Larry (Harry Richardson) goes to university, while his sister Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) has yet to “come out” in society.
A whole different type of “coming out” is something Agnes’s son Oscar (Blake Ritson) is planning on not doing. Instead, he’ll find some rich young woman to marry for appearances, and continue his relationship with equally closeted John Adams (Claybourne Elder). Gladys is looking like a good candidate.
Below stairs – this is, after all, what someone called “Brownstone Abbey” – the two households are headed by their respective butlers: Van Rhijn’s Bannister (Simon Jones) and the Russell’s Church (Jack Gilpin) with their respective so far pretty nondescript underlings who all have Secrets™. The first season focuses so much on showing us the “upstairs” that we’re left not really knowing much about the “downstairs”. We find out a few things about them, but not enough to get much of a grasp on who they really are as people, which is a shame.
There are a lot of things about this show that I could say “which is a shame” about. The costumes and settings are absolutely gorgeous to behold, but the dialogue feels a lot like a bunch of talking heads taking turns doling out historical factoids to prove that the writer has researched the era. While I congratulate Julian Fellowes on finding out exactly which trains in which sequence you need to take to get from Wherever in Pennsylvania to Manhattan in New York, or learning about a tragedy in Wisconsin, as a piece of dialogue things like that become tedious very quickly. It feels like the characters are repeatedly trying to give us history lectures instead of The Gilded Age simply showing us history happening around them.
The Gilded Age somehow feels more emotionally detached than Downton Abbey ever did. With Downton there were characters on both sides of the social spectrum that you get to either love or hate, you’ll soon have an opinion on each and every single one of them and learn their names. With this, I don’t love anyone. There are characters I prefer over others (like Peggy), but most of them are just … bland. It’s like it’s trying to do so much but doesn’t have the time to explore any of it properly so it ends up feeling lacking.
Like Gladys. She wants to be a Big Girl™ now, but Mother won’t let her. That’s pretty much it. I don’t really know why I should care about her. Larry doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps, and that’s pretty much it for him as well. Then again, the whole premise of the show is the clash between Old an New Money, and how Old Money consider themselves royalty and New Money are nothing but snotty upstarts who don’t know their place. There’s a lot of petty bickering about social status amongst a bunch of snobs, basically, and that’s not really my cup of tea.
“Ah, but not as if Downton Abbey was any different?” No, it probably wasn’t, in fairness, but it made the staff feel like they were part of the narrative and not an afterthought. An “oh yeah, we should do something with them as well, shouldn’t we? Okay, umm, you can go visit a sick relative or something, I guess”. I hope the second season that’s recently been green-lit means we get to know them enough to actually care about them. There’s just so many characters and it doesn’t have time to flesh them all out properly, but in trying to do so anyway we don’t really find out who they are. It feels like the show has bitten off more than it can chew. It’s just frustrating, because it’s an incredibly beautiful spectacle of a show and I love to see New York in an earlier time than we normally get to see, but it often feels a bit paint-by-numbers and predictable. “X does Y because of course they do.” … Which is a shame.
I like the actors, though. I’ve recently been watching The Good Fight, so it’s nice to see both Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald, and Morgan Spector played Frank Capone in Boardwalk Empire, for goodness sake! I like that Mr and Mrs Russell are shown to be a solid couple who genuinely love and are devoted to one another. That’s oddly refreshing.
Somehow the first season of The Gilded Age feels like a very long pilot episode instead of a season in its own right. I hope it finds its feet in season two, because it has a lot of potential to become fantastic, but right now it feels like it’s nice to look at but lacks substance. Which is a shame.
3.4 out of 5 escaped lapdogs.