There’s Nothing Gilded About This Age
HBO’s Next Great Drama Makes Me Rethink My Opinion On Another Period Piece
I shall begin this article with a confession. When Downton Abbey debuted on PBS more than a decade, despite all of the raves, I never watched an episode. Most of it had to do with the fact that its run invariably conflicted with one of my favorite series of all time The Good Wife as well as several other great HBO and Showtime dramas. This personal rejection became open hostility not long after Downton Abbey went from being regarded as a limited series to a drama and immediately shoved The Good Wife out of Emmy contention in that category. I never forgave the series for that particular sin and was also inclined to view every nomination it got as taking away ones from far more deserving broadcast and cable dramas. (It didn’t help matter that Maggie Smith, one of the greatest actresses in history, never deemed to come to the Emmys to pick up one of her three Supporting Actress awards.) So I have always had the opinion that it was pretentious and snobby and its moving into motion pictures the least desirable film franchise imaginable — yes, even worse than Entourage.
Now earlier this year I heard that Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski, in my opinion, two of the greatest actresses in television history, would be appearing in a series together playing sisters. It was not until late November that I learned that series was The Gilded Age, an HBO production created by none other than Julian Fellowes, the mind behind Downton Abbey. My mother had been interested in the series, so I told her about it. I intended to give it a cursory glance when I saw the premiere episode because of Baranski and Nixon. Then I saw the opening sequences and learned in addition to them, one of the leads was Carrie Coon, who I simply consider one of the greatest talents on television of the past decade. And it took me all of two minutes, seeing my New York being displayed to realize what I witnessing. Five minutes of dialogue to realize the rest.
The Gilded Age is set in 1882 New York, which I’m already inclined to appreciate more than I ever would Edwardian England. Those of us who know our history know the world we are in — it is the New York where ‘the 400’, those upper crust echelon who were known as ‘high society’ reigned over the city. We even meet the founder Mrs. Astor very quickly. Baranski and Nixon play Agnes and Ada, two very brittle, late middle aged sisters who are clearly on hard times, but still employ a full-staff of servants because that’s what one does. When the Russell family moves in next door in a house redesigned by Stanford White, a New York architect more famous now for how he died than how he lived, the audience is astounded at the opulence. Agnes turns up her nose.
As a resident New Yorker, I occasionally ponder as to why the world hates this city so much. The Gilded Age may give the clearest example of the elitism that I think the world sees in New York. George Russell (Morgan Spector) is a railroad tycoon probably with more wealth then most of the 400 put together. His wife Bertha (Coon) wants to infiltrate this society and goes to every effort to impress them. She puts out one of the most elaborate and ostentatious parties you could possibly imagine. Agnes refuses to come even though they’re right next door. The high society patrons openly ignore the invitations or throw them on the fire. The men are impressed with the Russell fortune and many of the politicians want to work with him, but their wives do everything they can to turn up their nose as the Russell home. Money is irrelevant to these people; class is. This is made abundantly clear when a charitable bazaar is held and rather than be offered a chance to use the Russell home for free, the society women decide to hold it at a more expensive and less convenient hotel. These are the kind of people who will spend hundreds of thousands on venues to raise a few thousand for the poor and not see the contradiction.
Ada and Agnes’ life is thrown into chaos when their niece from Pennsylvania is forced to come with live with them when she learns her father has left her destitute. Marian ( portrayed brilliantly by Louise Brook) shows up on her doorstep with an African-American woman named Peggy she befriends in a dire circumstance and it is very telling that Agnes is inclined to view Peggy as more useful to her than her own flesh and blood. All her interest is currently spent on getting Peggy married off to a wealthy boy…but you know the right kind of wealthy boy. Peggy is cleverer than Agnes gives her credit for being — or perhaps doesn’t want to — and is more determined to find her own path. “The times are changing,” is a theme that comes up throughout the series. The difference is so much of society doesn’t want to change even when it’s in their best interest. At one point in this series Lady Astor mentions James Roosevelt, cousin to Theodore, father to Franklin. It’s pretty clear going in why these people would be appalled by the era these members of their society would bring in. How far we’ve come.
The Gilded Age, quite frankly, is one of the great triumphs I’ve seen on television in a very long time. This is the series that everyone says Bridgerton is, but it’s actually about something. The dialogue is as clever as brilliant as anything I heard said on Deadwood, minus, of course, the ten-letter obscenities that Milch was obligated to use in every sentence. (Watch it to see if I’m kidding. And if you haven’t, watch it anyway!) The dialogue is filled with acerbic putdowns in almost every line and the level of wit is genuinely remarkable. At the same time, you get the feeling Fellowes is sending messages with every single exchange he makes his characters say. At one point Agnes’ son says: “These are the facts.” Agnes responds: “I care nothing for facts if they interfere with my beliefs.” His son counters: “I give you prejudice in a nutshell. (Pretty good description of social media too.)
The entire cast is brilliant, and in addition to the three astonishing actresses, I’ve also spotting veteran TV talents Debra Monk, Talissa Farmiga, and Jeanne Tripplehorn. The men also give good performances (Spector is almost certainly going to be shot to superstardom for his work) but this series is all about the women. Baranski and Coon are absolutely astounding: Baranski, who is a master of subtle putdowns on just about every series she’s been on, is completely unfiltered as well as totally refined in her insults. Coon has the same level of utter determination I’ve seen in every role she’s had since The Leftovers but now she has the money and power to be a force of her own. Will these roles finally get both actresses the Emmys they’ve deserved for years? Nixon is nearly as remarkable as perhaps the only truly empathetic character here; she knows her sister all too well and has no doubt spent a lifetime playing peacemaker. This is a revelation for those who know her strictly for playing the always cynical Miranda.
This series was in development for years (NBC passed on it at one point and by God, they’re probably kicking themselves for it now) and HBO picked it up for two season, even though strictly speaking its an off-brand series for them. The seamy underbelly that’s been at the center of every other historical drama they’ve done (not just Deadwood but Rome and Boardwalk Empire) is absent or otherwise covered up. Everything overt is done off-screen and all of the violence is verbal, and even that’s refined. All that The Gilded Age has in comparison with all of the great shows that HBO has ever done is its quality and in every single aspect — from the magnificent title sequence to the cinematography to the writing and direction — this already has the aspect of what of their great series. From my perspective, The Gilded Age is the first truly great series of 2022 and given that HBO gave it a two season upfront deal, I think it will reward them. Maybe I should find the time to finally watch Downton Abbey.
Note: This series, for reasons which are absolutely inconceivable, has the same rating as Euphoria, even though there are no vulgarities, no sex scenes, and nary a penis in sight. This is the same kind of logic that no doubt led Netflix to give a TV-MA rating to The Crown even though if you found your teenage son watching this instead of Sabrina, you’d know you’d been a good parent. The Gilded Age receives its rating for ‘Adult Content’, no doubt for the same reason you’d consider Howard’s End an adult movie. If you have a teenager who insists on watching Euphoria, try to guide to them this series as well. There’s no Zendaya, but the women here are just as bad-ass.
My score: 4.75 stars.