From the creator of the wildly popular Downton Abbey (Julian Fellows), comes the next big period drama, The Gilded Age. Set in Manhattan, New York instead of the Yorkshire countryside of England exactly 30 years before the events of Downton Abbey kicked off, The Gilded Age explores the oh so American storyline of earned money (“new money”) and inherited money (“old money”) rivalries.
Can The Gilded Age live up to the expectations of Downton Abbey fans? The Conservative Critic asks: Is it entertaining? Does it have artistic/intellectual value? And is it liberal propaganda?
The Conservative Critic Meter Check: The Gilded Age
Overall rating: Very Good
The Gilded Age truly is the American Downton Abbey. Fellows is an expert at creating a cohesive world told seamlessly through multiple perspectives. The Gilded Age capitalizes on that expertise but turns up the complexities considering the perspectives in America were quite a bit more diverse in 1882 than they were in classist England in 1912. What the show does best is context. Fellows asks and answers: what were major historical and political issues which lead these specific people to be where they are and have the attitudes they have? Much like Downton Abbey, Fellows is able to take the broad scope of period and boil it down into interpersonal relationships. In Downton Abbey it was the sinking of the Titanic, the first world war and the downfall of the British aristocracy. In The Gilded Age its post-antebellum reconstruction and the advent of the railroad. The effect creates a rich universe that is equal parts realism and fantastical.
Additionally, the series’ primary conflict comes from the changing of the New York elite class from those whose families had always had money and those who were earning it in new and emerging industries. The show does not paint a villain out of the ambitious and ruthless businessman, George Russell played by Morgan Spector (Homeland, Boardwalk Empire) but instead portrays a genius who loves his wife and his children. His ambitious and cunning wife, Bertha Russell played by Carrie Coon (Gone Girl, The Post) is loyal, sharp and tough. The couple is easy to root for making the show extremely conservative friendly considering our core values of agency and hard work. It’s a quintessential “boot straps” storyline.
All together The Gilded Age is definitely worth watching for fans of Downton Abbey and maybe even those who might enjoy the American take more than they would the British version.
Is it entertaining?
Rating: Dignified fun
Like Downton Abbey before, The Gilded Age is all about the quiet intrigue. With plenty of major bombs dropping and high level drama, the characters are always dignified. So there is never going to be a car chase (I mean…cars won’t be invented for another couple of years and not normalized for another decade or two) or even a big laugh. But the format and the show itself has a ton of appeal for the genre.
First of all, Fellow’s ability to bring in major historical events which viewers are all familiar with and boil them into interpersonal conflict. Because of the viewers familiarity with the historical events, it gives them a sense of connection to the unfolding plot. There is a sense of natural ownership over a story when subjects with which a viewer is familiar are referenced especially when done well.
The Gilded Age relies heavily on dialog to advance plot which can be a little sluggish at times but plays on viewers’ natural desire to participate in gossip and be ‘in the know.’ Without total omniscience, viewers get to learn about “what’s going on” at the same time as the characters. The pace is slower for this choice but the style has a lot of character.
Does it have intellectual/artistic value?
Rating: Strong but crowded
To begin with, the created world is stunning. The take on Manhattan in 1882 is most certainly a gilded one. Since the show is set in the richest neighborhoods and houses (for the most part) it doesn’t have to tackle issues like outhouses and lack of a sewage system. By this time in Manhattan, the wealthier neighborhoods would have reliable indoor plumbing and at least semi-proper disposal. So without having to deal with the most unseamly realities of the past, the show is able to give viewers beautifully vibrant silk gowns, museum worthy palaces taking up entire blocks and recognizable works of art.
The acting is strong. Coons as the indomitable Mrs. George Russell is sensational. Where has she been our whole lives? Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City, ran for Governor that time) as the kind spinster Ada Brook is unrecognizable and its a breath of fresh air to see her in something new. The beloved Christine Branski (Mamma Mia, The Good Fight) as the old money bastian, Agnes Van Rhijn, is nuanced. She has created a stern but principled woman whose ideologies may not be swayable but are not altogether reprehensible. Louisa Jacobson (Meryl Streep’s daughter) as Marian Brook is fine. She is pretty and delicate but she is no Mary Crowley.
There are two major breakout performances. First being Morgan Spector playing the railroad baron and family man, George Russell. Spector nails the early American accent better than anyone else. He is also extremely committed. I believe he is building an empire and I should not cross him. The second is Denee Benton (Mothers Milk, Our Friend) playing Peggy Scott, a wealthy black woman trying to become a writer white her parents have other plans. Benton has that special charisma that makes a star. Jacobson’s Brook may not be Mary Crowley but Benton’s Peggy Scott could be. With one of the most complex roles, managing coming of age, racial bias, and politics, Benton brings a special star quality to the show.
The one drawback from pitch perfection is that the show is too crowded. There are so many characters it is impossible to care about all of them or at this point even remember all of their names. In Downton Abbey, Fellows did manage to carry about 20 leading characters. In The Gilded Age, there is something far more chaotic about this attempt and it may simply be the geography of the show taking place in many houses instead of one. Regardless, characters are brought in suddenly crying or scheming and viewers find themselves wondering: who is this maid and why do I care if she’s sad? Some of the young men in the show are all so similar looking and so indistinctive in their character development that it’s hard to tell the difference between them. The Gilded Age needs to cut some of the character storylines and really focus on what’s working between the core group of 10 or so.
Is it liberal propaganda?
Rating: Conservative dream
The Gilded Age is quintessentially and so far fairly unapologetically American. There is nothing more conservative than celebrating the notion that anyone can become something and even become wealthy in the greatest country on earth. The show embodies these values repeatedly as the new money constantly thwarts the old. Further, it throws away the tired, problematic and liberal trend of “black suffering” where every single story about black history or a black person is some intense struggle and swaps it for a new money black woman with artistic dreams, struggling with issues that face any American woman. It’s refreshing to be given the story of black success in our country – of which there has of course been much. The show balances this refreshing take with the realities of prejudice and changing politics.
If you liked Downton Abbey you’ll like The Gilded Age only it’s much more conservative. USA! USA! USA!