‘The Gilded Age’ Review – The Hollywood Reporter

Since Succession ended in December, HBO subscribers have suffered through six weeks of Sunday nights without the exploits of Manhattan’s desiccated economic elite.

More than a decade after it was initially put into development at NBC, Julian FellowesThe Gilded Age arrives on premium cable with its own heady mixture of opulence, backstabbing and inbred deceit, both a complementary text to Succession and a contrast.

The Gilded Age

The Bottom Line

Stellar cast and dialogue cover for initial blandness.

Succession creator Jesse Armstrong is interested in the corrosive creep of wealth. For all of the private jets and luxury penthouses and lavish getaways on Succession, money almost exclusively perverts all of life’s joys. There’s no relationship or acquisition in Succession that hasn’t been poisoned, and the characters are defined by how visible their moral rot has become. It’s a darkly comic portrait of the end of the American empire.

Even in Downton Abbey, his own end-of-empire series, Fellowes approached wealth with more optimism, if only because literally anything would be more optimistic than Succession. His richest characters are often imperious and myopic, monstrous in their lack of compassion and perspective. But wealth is an amplifier, not a definer. The “downstairs” characters in Fellowes’ world can be just as venal, but they’re systemically shackled. At the same time, there’s room for the rich in Fellowes’ world to be kind, to deserve and find love. Even in an aristocracy-in-decline piece like Downton, lucre is neither an inherent malady or panacea.

The Gilded Age is more optimistic about wealth than Downton or Gosford Park because in transferring a comparably structured upstairs/downstairs story to America in the 1880s, it’s about a birth-of-empire. Perhaps that sense of hopefulness gets in the way of the stakes in an ambitious series that’s an embarrassment of casting and character riches, without always working as high drama.

A full overview of The Gilded Age would take me longer than the Michael Engler-directed pilot, which runs 80 minutes and somehow might have needed to be a bit longer.

The story is centered on 61st Street and 5th Avenue. On one side of the road, penniless Marian (Louisa Jacobson), mourning the death of her father, moves in with her aunts Agnes (Christine Baranski) and Ada (Cynthia Nixon), accompanied by new acquaintance Peggy (Denée Benton), an aspiring writer who doesn’t want to move back to her parents’ upper-class Black enclave in Brooklyn. Moving into a garish new mansion on the other side are the Russells, railroad magnate George (Morgan Spector) and wife Bertha (Carrie Coon), along with sheltered daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) and recent Harvard grad son Larry (Harry Richardson).

Marian has no money of her own and Agnes hopes to make her an acceptable marriage match, but her standards are very particular because this family represents New York’s old money — proper, entrenched and darned near British. The Russells are new money. They hired the wrong architect. They eat soup at midday. Bertha is way, way too eager to be accepted into high society, and if there’s anything that women like Agnes (and Kelli O’Hara’s Mrs. Fane and Katie Finneran’s Mrs. Morris) can’t abide, it’s the uppity nouveau riche. George, meanwhile, is willing to do anything to help his wife’s aspirations and he’s both loaded and possibly vicious.

The title of The Gilded Age speaks to a certain surface luxury, and my plot summary is stuck on the surface. Although the primary point of contrast in The Gilded Age is between Old and New, each of the households has a full downstairs staff and after five episodes, I was still describing certain characters as “Valet With New York Accent” and “Maid With Irish Accent” even after they had full subplots. Just as COVID variants may soon cause us to run out of letters in the Greek alphabet, the number of storylines in The Gilded Age exceeds what could be listed in a traditional A-story, B-story structure.

Do I want Marian to find love and not become a meek lapdog to Agnes and Ada? Sure, I guess. Jacobson has some feisty charm. Am I immediately invested in whether Agnes will ever come to accept Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel), a country lawyer smitten with Marian? Less so. It’s easier to care about the Russells, since we know they reflect the future, but it isn’t until the third episode that Bertha’s social-climbing and George’s corporate ruthlessness get any teeth.

Other key earlier storylines involve Agnes’ son Oscar (Blake Ritson) and his predatory interest in Gladys, Peggy’s attempts to fight the societal limitations for her race and gender in the publishing world and lots and lots of fundraisers. None of the stories are dull, but they’re somewhere between bland and familiar.

The same is true of the look of The Gilded Age. Each individual piece of the production is top-notch, especially Kasia Walicka Maimone’s costumes for Bertha, who seems to have a different gaudy gown for each scene, and Bob Shaw’s production design, offering a different level of grandiosity for each library or ballroom. Engler, a Downton Abbey veteran, seems mostly to be taking in all the prettiness and not giving the series a unique energy that would echo the cultural transformation taking place onscreen. Salli Richardson-Whitfield takes over directing responsibilities after the first couple of episodes, but I kept wondering what The Gilded Age would have been like if Fellowes had gone outside of the Downton Abbey stable and found a director able to provide a distinctive sensibility from the start. Or maybe with so much happening, any director would have had to prioritize “keeping track of all of the pieces.”

What glorious pieces they are. Fellowes has raided Broadway’s upper echelon on a level that I’m going to have to guess is unprecedented for a show so young. I’ve mentioned Baranski, Nixon, O’Hara and Finneran, a group in which seven-time Tony nominee O’Hara must’ve felt insecure about her lone win, but that’s barely the tip of the Tony-winning iceberg. Audra McDonald plays Peggy’s mother. Donna Murphy is Mrs. Astor, one of several real-life luminaries woven into the tale, along with tastemaker Ward McAllister, played by Nathan Lane. Bill Irwin plays a potential beau for Ada. Michael Cerveris, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Debra Monk play “downstairs” denizens with secrets. Tony winners all! It’s almost a surprise to see that admired stage performers like Coon, Patrick Page, Lisa Emond and John Douglas Thompson only have Tony nominations to their credit. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the musical episode of The Gilded Age will be the greatest episode of television ever made.

And when you take a cast like that and give them Fellowes’ brand of erudite, cutting dialogue, delicious performances are inevitable. In the early going, the female characters and performances are far ahead of the men, who form such an indistinguishable blur that when Lane appears as almost a proto-Colonel Sanders, I approved of the audacity.

Coon, with cold, calculating eyes and a razor tongue, is the immediate standout, with Baranski, playing the aristocratic American equivalent of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, her only competition for Fellowes’ juicy dialogue. Those characters are being kept on opposite sides of 61st Street for now, but eventually their interactions will produce fireworks.

Nixon plays the meeker, but also more human, of Marian’s aunts and her performance is a delightful assortment of comic and sympathetic reactions. McDonald and Thompson command immediate respect as soon as they hit the screen, and working opposite Benton — yes, a Tony nominee for Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 — they’re part of a plotline that already has The Gilded Age making more effort to address the role race plays in class structures than Downton Abbey did in its entire run. Such deviations from viewing class in strictly white and heterosexual terms may be where The Gilded Age has the most potential.

At its best, Downton Abbey was a brainy, polished soap opera of the highest order and, thus far, The Gilded Age could use more of that soapiness. Yes, Downton Abbey had a lot of table-setting to do as well, but Lady Mary sexed poor Mr. Pamuk to death in the third episode. The Gilded Age would be well served by a little more of that sauciness, though as long as Fellowes’ words are emerging from the mouths of this ensemble, I’m prepared to be patient.

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