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Review of “The Gilded Age”: Dime-Store “Downton”

Julian Fellowes continued his new series, “The Gilded Age”, for a decade. Call it his white whale. Starting Monday on HBO, you can watch him hang out with a great, talented cast under the waves.

What would become of “The Gilded Age” started in 2012 like Fellowes’ idea for a prequel to his “Downton Abbey,” the British upstairs-and-downstairs costume drama that was a huge hit for PBS in the US. The early years of “Downton” were a sweet and charming mix of family melodrama and pastoral comedy, but the charm faded and the artifice grew over the course of six seasons, and as the series unfolded. ended in 2015, the idea of ​​a spin-off had lost a bit. of its brilliance.

Fellowes persisted, however, even as he penned other series, such as the highly entertaining Georgian drama “Belgravia” (2020). “The Gilded Age” dragged on, switched networks (from NBC to HBO) and, when it finally started filming, suffered a pandemic delay. After all this time, it’s sad to report that the series, while no longer a “Downton” prequel, feels like a more superficial and shallower reworking of the character types and familiar situations of the previous series. . (Five of the nine episodes were available.) Maybe all that time had something to do with it.

Set in New York City in 1882 (about 30 years after ‘Moby-Dick’ was published there), the series opens as a new silver family, the Russells, move into their Stanford-designed mansion. White on Fifth Avenue, across from the less luxurious but more respectable home of sisters Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon).

George Russell (Morgan Spector) is a Vanderbilt-style railroad tycoon and robber baron, and his wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon), is fiercely determined to make her way through New York society. Their upstart status was confirmed from the outset, with the appearance of carts carrying boxes of statuary that were probably looted from European homes and churches.

This is the territory of Henry James and Edith Wharton, and Fellowes is not shy about drawing comparisons. A scene at the Academy of Music, once New York’s main opera house, directly evokes Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence”; a scene in which a mercenary suitor is sent packing is straight out of James’ “Washington Square” and its theatrical adaptation, “The Heiress” by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.

And there is an ingenue, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), Agnes and Ada’s niece, who is reminiscent of many young women in James and Wharton’s novels, though she is neither so innocent nor so tragic, nor as convincing as these models. She arrives at her aunts’ house to serve as a surrogate for the audience and offer romantic interest as a counterpoint to the genteel but brutal social and economic warfare that forms the central story. In highly unlikely circumstances, she also brings with her an aspiring writer, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a young black woman who becomes Agnes’ secretary and enables Fellowes to consider race alongside class and of sex in his portrayal of 19th century New York.

It’s a muddled and sloppy portrayal, however – a thin gloss over its higher sources that constantly dips into caricature. Fellowes’ heart doesn’t seem to have been there; certainly his ear was not: “The future is theirs, men like Mr. Russell,” we are told, and “You are a New Yorker now…and for a New Yorker anything is possible ‘, and with the other hand, ‘You belong in old New York, my dear, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!’

The worn dialogue fits with the largely one-note characterizations, seen most blatantly in the hidden widow Agnes, who seems to have no thought beyond her distaste for the new rich. In general, the conservatism and provincialism of the old guard is so exaggerated and presented with so little context that the women of the company seem to come from outer space, and the actresses who play them can’t do much for them. to make human.

One of the glories of “Downton”, of course, was the excellence of its performers, many of whom had not previously been well known in the United States. For “The Gilded Age,” HBO assembled a more star-studded cast, but most of the actors fall victim to the obviousness of the material. Baranski’s usual brilliance is muted; she’s the designated zinger delivery girl, like Maggie Smith in “Downton,” but the effect isn’t there. Nixon tries his best but finds nothing coherent to play in Ada, who is always on the verge of the hysterical bachelor caricature. Bertha is a slightly more rounded character – the story is generally more sympathetic to people from the future – but her dark social ascent isn’t much more interesting than Agnes’ snobbishness, and Coon seems as uneasy as her comrades. Other artists go straight for aggression, like Nathan Lane as social arbiter Ward McAllister.

There’s an awful lot of on-screen talent, though, and some performers are stepping into smaller roles. Kelli O’Hara is good as a society wife desperately trying to bridge the gap between old and new. Audra McDonald conveys strength and compassion as Peggy’s concerned mother. And Sullivan Jones brings the series to life in a brief appearance as the editor of a black newspaper that publishes Peggy’s writings.

In “Downton”, Fellowes managed to cut out the larger world and ground his story in the daily rhythms of a family and an estate. In “The Gilded Age” he lets the world in, and yet everything seems smaller. The servants go through the same soap opera moves we enjoyed in “Downton” but feel superfluous to the story; New York’s social circle is called the 400, but here it’s more like 12 or 15. And while the costumes and interiors are lavish, the Fifth Avenue streetscapes are now fleshed-out backlot constructions with computer graphics – you don’t even get the authentic mansion glory. As the Countess of Grantham said, things are different in America.