Julian Fellowes spent a decade chasing after his new television series, “The Gilded Age.” It’s been dubbed his “white whale.” It will premiere on HBO on Monday, and you will be able to see it take him and a vast, amazing ensemble under the waters.
Fellowes’ concept for a prequel to his popular British costume drama “Downton Abbey,” which was a big smash for PBS in the United States, originated as a prequel to his hit British costume drama “Downton Abbey” in 2012. In the beginning, the series was a seamless, delightful mix of family melodrama and pastoral humour. But as the series progressed through its six seasons, the charm faded and contrivance increased, and by the time it concluded in 2015, the concept of a spinoff had lost some of its shine.
While writing other programmes, such as the extremely entertaining Georgian drama “Belgravia,” Fellowes remained committed to his original project (2020). In the meanwhile, “The Gilded Age” stuck around, shifted networks (from NBC to HBO), and, when it eventually began production, was subjected to a pandemic delay. Even though the programme is no longer a “Downton” prequel, it seems to be a lazier and more shallow recycling of character types and scenarios that were recognisable from the previous series, which is disappointing. (Five of the nine episodes were accessible for viewing. ) It’s possible that all of that time had a role in this.
A new-money family, the Russells, moves into their Stanford White-designed mansion on Fifth Avenue in 1882 (approximately 30 years after “Moby-Dick” was first published in New York), and the series opens across the street from the less luxurious but more respectable house of the old-money sisters Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Julia Roberts), who are both married to new-money men (Cynthia Nixon).
Morgan Spector plays George Russell, a railroad magnate and robber baron in the vein of Vanderbilt, and Carrie Coon portrays his wife, Bertha, who is strongly committed to pushing her way into upper-class New York society. Their arriviste identity is confirmed very immediately, as shown by the sight of carts loaded with boxes of statues that look to have been looted from European houses and churches.
Considering that this is the realm of Henry James and Edith Wharton, it is no surprise that Fellowes draws analogies. Several scenes, including one set at the Academy of Music, which was once New York’s primary opera house, are lifted directly from Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” and a scene in which an unwelcome mercenary suitor is thrown out of the house is lifted directly from James’s “Washington Square” and its theatrical adaptation, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s “The Heiress,” respectively.
Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), the niece of Agnes and Ada, is a young woman who is evocative of many young ladies in James’s and Wharton’s books, albeit she is neither as innocent, sad, nor fascinating as her literary counterparts. This young woman comes to her aunts’ home in order to function as an audience surrogate and to give some romantic intrigue as a counterbalance to the polite but merciless social and economic struggle that forms the core narrative. Through a series of unlikely events, she also takes with her an aspiring writer named Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a young Black woman who eventually becomes Agnes’ secretary and enables Fellowes to account for race alongside class and gender in his portrayal of nineteenth-century New York City.
Despite this, it’s a confused and slapdash portrayal of the subject – a thin gloss applied to its better sources that often descends into caricature. It seems that Fellowes’ heart wasn’t in it, and his ear wasn’t either: “They own the future, guys like Mr. Russell,” we’re informed, and “You’re a New Yorker now…,” says another. that everything is possible for a New Yorker,” yet on the other hand, “You are a part of old New York, my love, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise!”
Agnes, the hidebound widow, is the most severe example of this, since she seems to have no ideas other than her dislike for the nouveau riche. The shopworn speech is in keeping with the otherwise one-note characterizations. As a whole, the rigidity and provincialism of the old guard is overdrawn and given with so little context that the society ladies seem to be from another planet, and the actors who portray them are unable to bring them down to earth.
However, there is a tremendous amount of talent onscreen, and several of the actors make a lasting impression even in minor parts. Kelli O’Hara is excellent as a society wife who is frantically attempting to bridge the gap between the old and the modern. When Audra McDonald plays Peggy’s worried mother, she exudes strength and compassion. And Sullivan Jones, who makes a short cameo as the editor of a Black newspaper that publishes Peggy’s articles, brings the performance to a rousing conclusion.
Fellowes was successful in “Downton” because he was able to block off the rest of the world and focus on the everyday rhythms of a single family and a whole estate. In “The Gilded Age,” he opens the door to the world, yet everything seems to be smaller as a result. “Downton” has a cast of domestic employees that go through the same soap-opera motions we adored in “Downton,” but they seem unnecessary to the tale; New York’s social circle is nicknamed the 400, but here it feels more like a group of 12 or 15 people; And, although the costumes and interiors are sumptuous, the Fifth Avenue streetscapes are now backlot constructs that have been filled up with computer graphics – you don’t even get to see the manor home in its original splendour. As the Countess of Grantham pointed out, things are different in the United States of America.