‘The Gilded Age’ is Cashing in on ‘Downton Abbey’ Nostalgia (REVIEW)

For those who’ve been looking for something to fill the Downton Abbey void since the show’s 2015 conclusion (and while we wait for the second movie, coming out this May), Julian Fellowes seemed to have the cure with his new series, HBO’s The Gilded Age. Set against the backdrop of 1880s New York City, the show follows two households, the old money van Rhijns, and the new money Russells, as they navigate the societal changes sure to disrupt their lives – whether they be Miss Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) coming to live with her aunts Agnes (Christine Baranski) and Ada (Cynthia Nixon), or Mrs. George Russell (Carrie Coon) planning to make a name for herself with the old money crowd. (Plus hats. Always, always hats.)

I consider myself something of a Downton Abbey superfan. I’ve seen the entire series multiple times, and I’m in the midst of a rewatch as we speak. So perhaps this is coloring my view of Fellowes’ new series – but I think I’d still feel, even if I weren’t watching Downton simultaneously, that The Gilded Age, despite its elaborate, fun costumes and its slew of familiar Broadway faces, just fails to keep my attention.

The Gilded Age was initially conceived as a Downton Abbey prequel, detailing the romance between Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern). Though the idea has since moved on, I still feel a tinge of similarity between Mrs. Russell and Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), Lady Grantham’s blunt and outspoken mother who is no stranger to being asked for money. Much like the Levinsons, the Russells have two children: Larry (Harry Richardson) and Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), for whom Mrs. Russell will have nothing but the best. Her husband (Morgan Spector) knows that she’s embarking on the seemingly impossible task of making nice and ingratiating herself with the ladies of Old New York, but Bertha will not be deterred. To her, their fortune – which Mr. Russell earned thanks chiefly to railroads – is just as valuable, if not more so, as fortunes that have existed since before the Revolution. 

Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell and Morgan Spector as George Russell in The Gilded Age (COURTESY: HBO)

You do not often meet a character who says exactly what’s on her mind rather than acting as polite society expects her to. Mrs. Russell’s bold nature makes for some of The Gilded Age‘s more interesting moments, such as when she asks Mrs. Fane (Kelli O’Hara) to leave her house, knowing the woman only showed up so that the Russells would not begrudge her charity a donation, or when Mrs. Russell tells Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane) very bluntly that she wants nothing more than Mrs. Astor’s (Donna Murphy) approval. I’m always interested to see what Bertha Russell will do next to make a name for herself in New York society; she is perhaps the main reason I continue to tune in.

But then we journey across the street to the home of Agnes van Rhijn and her spinster sister Ada Brook. They’ve recently taken in their niece, Marian, whose father died and left her with effectively nothing. On her way to New York City from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Marian encounters Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), who pays for Marian’s replacement train ticket when Marian loses her purse in a brawl that breaks out on the train platform. Grateful to Peggy for this kindness and sensing her trepidation over returning home to Brooklyn, Agnes offers Peggy a job as her secretary. Peggy accepts, glad that this position gives her a place to stay and time to work on her writing. 

As a complete stranger to New York, to say nothing of its high society, Marian is the audience’s avatar. (Quite literally: many of her lines in the first few episodes are questions, the answers to which are intended to orient the viewer in this unfamiliar world). Fortunately, her Aunt Agnes is intent on teaching Marian the way of things. In one of their first meetings, she reminds her niece, “Now, you’ll need to know we only receive the old people in this house. Not the new. Never the new.” It’s a biting reminder, with the Russells having just moved in across the street, that Agnes is intent on keeping things as they’ve been. Marian, unsure she can live by her aunt’s rules, takes up a quiet romance with Mr. Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel), the lawyer who handled her father’s estate in Doylestown and who has also just moved to New York, determined to make a name for himself so he can be more suitable to Marian’s aunts.  

Unfortunately, Marian’s thankless service as our guide into this strange new world means she’s also the lens through which we view Peggy, which is a drawback of the series so far. Marian and Peggy become friends due to a strange set of circumstances under which they met. But because their friendship is also the first time that Marian has spent any time with a Black person, we’re forced to watch the missteps Marian makes while seemingly unaware that people treat Peggy differently because of her race. This has led to some excruciating scenes – particularly the one where Marian shows up unannounced at Peggy’s family’s home in Brooklyn, ready to give them a pair of old shoes, only to discover that Peggy’s family is quite well-off and they don’t need Marian’s charity. The dynamic ultimately does a disservice to both characters: it leaves little for Marian to do besides be a naïve and well-meaning white woman, and it negates part of Peggy’s arc, stopping her from making her own way in the world without anyone’s help. (It’s also a shame for Peggy’s screen time to be spent this way, as she is a far more interesting character than Marian.)

Denée Benton as Peggy Scott and Louisa Jacobson as Marian Brook in The Gilded Age (COURTESY: HBO)

You’d think The Gilded Age‘s set of characters would be enough to make for an interesting and rich narrative. But, as was the case with Downton Abbey, Fellowes attempts to follow the wealthy characters and their servants – a decision detrimental to the overall story. Downton excelled at making us care about all the characters upstairs and down. In season one, housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie) decides that she’d like to leave service to become a secretary, even garnering the help of Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) in her quest to follow her dreams. Gwen’s story cemented the idea that although the downstairs people are servants, they have lives and motives beyond the wishes of their employers. So far on The Gilded Age, most of the talk in the servants’ halls of the Russell and van Rhijn households has to do with the Russells and the van Rhijns, making it all the more confounding when the show delivers information about the servants’ lives’ beyond the confines of their employment. I find myself uninterested in Mrs. Bauer’s (Kristine Nielsen) gambling debts or footman Jack’s (Ben Ahlers) so-called crush on housemaid Bridget (Taylor Richardson) when The Gilded Age spends so little time developing these characters in the first place.

Unfortunately, some of the show’s most interesting moments also happen offscreen, and we’re forced to learn about them later through (grimace) exposition. For example, the only reason we know about Mrs. Bauer’s gambling debt at all is because a man we never see or hear from again comes to the van Rhijn house looking for repayment, and Ada lends Mrs. Bauer the money to pay off her debt. We learn that Gladys, desperate for her debutante ball but forced to wait until Mrs. Russell is certain society will attend a grand ball in her new home, has been conducting a correspondence with a suitor (Tom Blyth), going so far as to meet him in secret. We only ever meet the fabled Archie Baldwin because Mr. and Mrs. Russell invite him to dinner so George can offer him a lucrative job in exchange for breaking things off with Gladys.

Taissa Farmiga as Gladys Russell in The Gilded Age (COURTESY: HBO)

This type of flat-footed storytelling hearkens back to one of my favorite of the Dowager Countess’ (Maggie Smith) lines on Downton: “I hate Greek drama, where everything happens off stage.” If we’re meant to care about these characters, why not show us more of who they are as people? I sympathize with Gladys’ plight, but I wish I hadn’t been robbed of learning a bit more about what she’s going through, as her mother seems to have grander plans for her life than Gladys herself does.

At the end of the day, Fellowes set himself an ambitious task that I he hasn’t yet met. There are too many characters in The Gilded Age, and most of them feel flat and one-dimensional – there isn’t enough time, on an hour-long show with a nine-episodes season, to service them all. I can only focus my energy on a few of them – the Russells, Peggy, and Agnes. (And I don’t think I would be as interested in Agnes were it not for Christine Baranski’s biting delivery of her one-liners.) I can’t see myself getting as invested in The Gilded Age as I did in Downton Abbey, and I think part of the reason that people seem to be enjoying this show so much is that Fellowes is playing on our nostalgia for his first series. Thanks to Downton, he already had us hooked. Here’s hoping that what he’s setting up for The Gilded Age Season Two ends up being more interesting than its debut.

Rating: 7/10

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