The first episode of ‘The Gilded Age’, the long-awaited, highly anticipated new HBO series from ‘Downton Abbey’ creator Julian Fellowes, which dramatizes the ruling class clash between old money and the nouveau riche in New York in 1882, premiered on January 24.
‘The Gilded Age’ tries to follow Fellowes’ well-worn formula of mining the opulent lifestyles of the exorbitantly rich for some drawing-room drama.
To be clear, ‘Downton Abbey’, which ran from 2010 to 2015, wasn’t some dramatic masterpiece, but it was a charmingly benign, escapist soap opera that hit at the right time with the right tone to capture the imagination of audiences.
Unfortunately, ‘The Gilded Age’ is a pale imitation of both ‘Downton Abbey’ and the literary works of Edith Wharton and Henry James, as the show lacks both Downton’s charm and Wharton and James’ dramatic specificity and dynamism, resulting in an exceedingly joyless and painfully pedestrian program.
The first episode introduces the less-than-compelling protagonists in this New York-based, 1880’s cultured clash.
From the old money van Rhijn house are the high-priestess of the old guard hierarchy, matriarch Agnes (Christine Baranski), her spinster sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon), their niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), and Agnes’ son Oscar (Blake Ritson).
Across the street, in a pretentiously large mansion, are the nouveau riche Russells. The patriarch, George (Morgan Specter), is an amoral railroad robber baron. His wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon), is determined to climb the highly provincial and restrictive hierarchy of New York’s elite. Their adult son, Larry (Harry Richardson), and teenage daughter, Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), are less ambitious and more open-hearted if not naïve.
You’d think the ‘The Gilded Age’ would focus fiercely on the clash between the van Rhijn and Russell clans and everything they represent, but you’d be wrong.
Instead, a main thrust of the show is about Marian and a young black woman, Peggy Scott (Denee Benton), who serendipitously become friends on a railroad journey to New York from Pennsylvania.
‘Downton Abbey’ received criticism for not being “diverse” enough, and Fellowes obviously wanted to pay his woke tax in full on ‘The Gilded Age’, so he scuttles the realism of the show by conjuring up this dramatically self-defeating, racially harmonious storyline to appease the diversity police.
Despite the fact that all Agnes talks or cares about is appearances and what other people think, when the black Peggy comes into the van Rhijn house on 61st and Fifth Avenue, she is warmly welcomed by the family with soft smiles and a job offer and not the historically accurate, racist and classist shrieks of outrage one would expect.
In one disjointed scene, Agnes scolds Marian for what people will say after she walked alone in the streets of New York with a suitcase, but then turns and smiles broadly at Peggy, asking her to live with them and be her personal secretary.
This sort of preening progressivism and historical revisionism reared its head on ‘Downton Abbey’ too. On that show, which took place between 1912 and 1926, one of the butlers is discovered to be gay, and everyone responded in the most 21st century way by embracing him with open hearts and gentle smiles.
In contrast, on the series ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, the terrific original British period parlor piece which ran from 1971 to 1975, a butler was discovered to be gay and after being aggressively shunned he ended up being hung.
It should come as no surprise that there is, of course, a gay character on ‘The Gilded Age’ too, and I doubt he meets such a grisly end.
Fellowes is not interested in any such uncouth ugliness, he just wants to show off his, and his characters’, woke worldview as well as the lavish lifestyle of the aristocracy.
Besides the self-defeating woke nonsense, what is most striking about ‘The Gilded Age’ is the abysmal writing and acting.
Baranski is a great actress, but as Agnes she is tasked with being like Maggie Smith from ‘Downton Abbey’, a matriarch who unleashes incisive, witty barbs with a knowing smirk and a gleam in her eye. But Baranski is no Smith, and her dialogue is delivered with a dead-eyed dullness that is shocking to behold.
The problem with Jacobson, who happens to be Meryl Streep’s daughter, isn’t that she’s no Streep (who is?), but that she gives a thoroughly lifeless and utterly anemic performance as Marian. She is so lacking in magnetism she’s nearly translucent if not transparent.
Benton as Peggy is just as listless, and when Peggy and Marian are on-screen together it feels like the universe may collapse into a black hole of anti-charisma.
Most alarming of all is Coon, an actress of great skill and talent, giving a miserable misfire of a performance as Bertha. She furiously flails, and ultimately falls into the abyss of nothingness that is non-specifics and bland generalities.
The entirety of the cast seems adrift in the same endless ocean of lifelessness.
Maybe the problem is that the actors all have to recite the most cliched and trite of dialogue imaginable. Fellowes’ script is so devoid of any original spark that it’s no wonder the cast seems to be sleep-walking through the festivities.
‘The Gilded Age’ runs for eight more episodes premiering every Monday to March 21. But the bottom line is, if you’re looking for another ‘Downton Abbey’ or even just a decent TV show, the cheap knock-off that is ‘The Gilded Age’ sure as hell isn’t it.