The Gilded Age Somehow Makes Class War a Bore

HBO hired Julian Fellowes to make a Downton Abbey out of 1880s NYC. But all the fussy costumes and jewelry in the world can’t bring The Gilded Age’s story of old vs. new money to life.

The Gilded Age is starting off as the silliest, most vacuous, and half-baked costume melodrama ever made about people in fancy duds going to balls, teas, and socials. (HBO)

I had a couple of reasons for bothering to watch the first episode in the new HBO series The Gilded Age. These reasons prevailed, even though I never managed to get through even one full episode of the previous series created and written by Julian Fellowes, called — you may have heard of it? — Downton Abbey.

First reason: Fellowes has been giving a lot of interviews talking about how pertinent The Gilded Age is in our current time of monstrous economic inequality. As Fellowes notes, we have a “kind of dynamic with all of our billionaires racing each other to the moon that is rather reminiscent of the Gilded Age.” It seemed that the subject matter of the series would almost necessitate a critical look at this period of the 1870s to early 1900s, when a class of newly rich Americans outdid all previous Anglo-American practices of cutthroat capitalism and conspicuous consumption, in a way that set an obscene standard for jet sets and tech moguls and assorted Trumps to come.

Second reason: a long time ago, Julian Fellowes wrote a good script for the film Gosford Park (2001), directed by Robert Altman. It followed the formula established in the 1970s BBC drama Upstairs, Downstairs that became such a hit, its basic structure featuring the intertwined lives of upper-crust households and the servants who run them. Fellowes and Alton turned Gosford Park into a combination Agatha Christie–style whodunit and class-conscious critique of the domestic horror show of the British aristocracy.

But it seems pretty clear by now that it was Altman who must’ve brought the critique. Fellowes has none, which figures, given the Tory peer that he is. The Gilded Age is starting off as the silliest, most vacuous, and half-baked costume melodrama ever made about people in fancy duds going to balls, teas, and socials. And I say this as someone who generally enjoys watching costume melodrama, and fancy duds, and balls, teas, and socials. The Gilded Age is a fiasco even with the bar set low, at “period soap opera,” meant to generate sudsy thrills for people who like swanky sets and costumes, arch emoting, and big scenes featuring characters declaring things like “I’m not beaten yet!” and “I will make them pay for this!”

The Gilded Age is about the clash of old and new money in 1880s New York City. The Van Rhijn family, led by sisters Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), are the old money snobs whose status was acquired back when the Dutch controlled New York. They attempt to hold off the social and geographical incursions of obscenely rich arrivistes moving in on them, led by the Russells — robber baron George (Morgan Spector) and his monomaniacally social-climbing wife Bertha (Carrie Coon).

Every care is taken to make sure you can follow that simple schema. The dimly elegant Van Rhijn house is directly across fashionable East Sixty-First Street from the mammoth, ostentatious new Russell mansion, allowing for many shots of female characters darting poisonous glances at the neighbors through lacy window curtains or dirty looks as they alight from splendid carriages.

Episode One is titled “Never the New,” and poor Christine Baranski is saddled with explanatory dialogue intended to make things clear to her spunky niece Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson):

Now you need to know we only receive the old people in this house, not the new. Never the new. . . . The old have been in charge since before the revolution. They ruled justly until the new people invaded. . . . My mother, your grandmother, was a Livingston of Livingston Manor, and they came to this city in 1674. You belong to old New York, my dear, and don’t let anyone tell you different. You are my niece, and you belong to olllllld New York.

Naturally, the spunky niece is inclined rebelliously toward new New York, hoping to work at a paying job now that her father has left her penniless, befriending the young black woman Penny Scott (Denée Benton) who becomes Aunt Agnes’s secretary (but longs to be a writer), and defiantly taking an interest in the goings-on in the showy Russell establishment. Many minor characters declare their allegiance to “old” or “new” right away, for those keeping score at home. For example, the hugely mustached Stanford White (John Sanders), who’s designed the Russell mansion, cheerfully admits that, while he isn’t a fashionable architect yet among New York’s famous “Four Hundred” — the number of sufficiently socially prominent upper-crusters who could fit into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom — perhaps he soon will be!

As for Fellowes himself, he’s definitely on Team New. Sure, Team Old is good too — all wealth is clearly regarded as fascinating in and of itself — but after all, history’s on the side of the bigger, more brazen bucks, so why fight it?

Fellowes actually had a long and varied career as a British actor and writer before Gosford Park got him a Best Screenplay Oscar and put him on the American entertainment industry map. But by now, his showbiz success is entirely based on his ability to follow the money and tell us what elaborate behaviors and practices got set up in relation to the biggest fortunes. What clothes, what jewels, what fork to use, what servants to do which chores, and all the rest of it.

Unlike in Gosford Park, in which the servants played by Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Kelly Macdonald, Eileen Atkins, Alan Bates, and Emily Watson were arguably the most arresting characters, Fellowes seems to have only the faintest interest in the servants in The Gilded Age, other than Penny Scott. They’re barely sketched in as characters, acting so far as figures commenting on the expensive activities of their employers.

Given the reliable viewer fascination with this kind of guff, is it any use noting that this series is downright badly made? The street scenes representing 1882 Manhattan are so poorly CGI-d, they have that bright, clean, fake look that hurts the eyes. The actors are directed so terribly by Michael Engler and Salli Richardson-Whitfield, they look uncomfortable in their costumes and embarrassed by the lines they have to say, which they should be. Was Downton Abbey as rotten as this?

I’ve read that The Gilded Age was powered by such eagerness to replicate the enormous success of Fellowes’s biggest hit, that at least the opening of the first episode “plays like Downton almost beat for beat.”

It’s almost enough to make me watch a bit more of Downton Abbey, at least one complete episode, just to see if millions tuned in obsessively to watch something as atrocious as The Gilded Age.

Almost enough, that is.