Though Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner meant “the Gilded Age” as a pejorative when they used it as the title for their 1873 novel—that’s “gilded,” as in something that looks gold, but isn’t—Americans consuming historical entertainment have long gravitated to the sexier aspects of the period between the end of Reconstruction and World War I. Those robber barons were robbing everyone blind, sure—but they were also rich, and that’s always fun! Now here comes The Gilded Age, the new HBO series from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, which hopes to capture that interest in the expert capital accumulators of days of yore.
The show’s once-planned connections to the Downton universe—including the courtship of Robert Crawley and Cora Levinson—never really materialized, although The Gilded Age has all the gowns, the beautiful architecture, and the banks of tinkling bells summoning servants a Downton fan could hope for. It looks sumptuous, and the streets are clean, despite all the horse-drawn carriages. Nor has Fellowes, with small exceptions, tapped history for the characters, preferring to invent a universe of “old” and “new” rich people who can fight with one another over literally nothing.
We have Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon as Agnes van Rhijn and Ada Brook, the old-money aunts of Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), the ingénue whose arrival at their house on East 61st Street after the death of her father sets the plot of the series in motion. Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon are the Russells, a new-money railroad tycoon and his wife who are banging at the door of New York society. Teas and balls and at-homes and charity bazaars are planned; invitations are issued; attendance and non-attendance are endlessly discussed. At one point Mrs. Russell, eating breakfast in bed, sees a note in the newspaper about a charity bazaar moving from the Armory to a hotel and becomes so angry that she flips her breakfast tray; the music swells. (She had offered their house as a backup location, you see! Why wouldn’t those women accept her!)
The main, driving conflict of The Gilded Age—whether or not the Russells, and by proxy the rest of the new-money New Yorkers who are rapidly accumulating piles of cash in what may have been the most unequal time in American history, will be brought into High Society—is so boring and low-stakes I sink into despair at the idea of watching an entire show that revolves around it. To be clear, the problem isn’t a lack of historical accuracy. In fact, in his book about New York’s upper class and its centurieslong push and pull with the city that it dominates, historian Clifton Hood described the central dilemma of this particular elite like so: “The tension between the pressures of American economic dynamism and democratic culture, on the one hand, and the enticements of exclusivity and superiority, on the other.” Even if most historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era are far more likely to be writing about non-elite topics these days—Native people forced onto reservations out West, poverty in the cities, Jim Crow in the South, unions and labor issues nationwide—this song and dance between new and old money did happen. Viewers of The Gilded Age in 2022 will just have to ask themselves if that’s enough to keep them watching.
Marian, the audience avatar who enters into this fancy world as (improbably) naïve as a fawn, is kindhearted, and her openness shows up the closed nature of old New York. She can’t help but befriend Sylvia Chamberlain (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a society woman who has become an outcast because of the suspicious circumstances of her marriage. She also roots for the van Rhijns to include the Russells in society, much to her aunt Agnes’ distress. “I am trying to hold back the tide of barbarians threatening to engulf us,” Agnes declares. “I feel like King Canute!” (Downton cross-reference siren!)
Yet none of these people seem very different from one another. Downton was also all about historical change, and in fact became obsessed with the topic; Willa Paskin quipped in a 2014 review of that show’s Season 4 that on the subject of “changing times,” Downton was “more dedicated to restating its topic sentence than the most obedient ninth-grade composition student.” But there was just a lot more interesting change afoot in Downton, which was set starting in 1912 because that was when technological change truly began to alter everyday life in the industrialized world. There was the class stuff, sure, but there was a lot more to chew on: automobiles, electricity, the Great War. Even if the show got tiresome on the topic, there was some there there. In The Gilded Age, the only stakes the show chooses to explore are an infinitesimal-to-me difference between rich people whose forebears have been in Pennsylvania for a century and a half, rich people whose parents were from Ireland, and soon-to-be-rich people who are lawyers. Who cares?
Baranski feels, in the five episodes released for review so far, quite underused: buttoned-down, finicky, and directing all of the competence that made us love her as The Good Wife’s fierce litigator Diane Lockhart into much more boring activities, like policing her niece’s romantic ambitions and fighting with her sister, the flightier, kinder, and more sentimental Ada, about her niece’s romantic ambitions. Agnes is, I think, supposed to be the show’s Cousin Violet—the representative of the older order, and the one with the quips. Marian announces her intention to go to Brooklyn to help a friend in trouble who might need “cheering,” and Agnes replies, “So might I, if I lived in Brooklyn.” It’s a burn, sure, but it’s just a sad shadow of “What is a ‘weekend’?”
Agnes is also secretly kind, just like Violet was. As Lili Loofbourow pointed out at the beginning of Downton’s third season in 2013, Violet was, in Downton’s world, a contradictory force, showing Fellowes’ conviction that people tied to the old order may be superficially unbearable, but they also know best: “The woman who seems to most strenuously oppose change is the person welcoming—and quietly incorporating—the least orthodox elements into the family.” In the case of Agnes, there’s her kindness to Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), the Black aspiring writer Marian meets on a train platform in the first episode, who ends up joining the van Rhijn household on East 61st Street as Agnes’ secretary. “I do know you’ve taken a chance on me, and I appreciate it,” Peggy says to Agnes. Agnes replies, “Life has taught me one thing, Miss Scott: If you don’t want to be disappointed, only help those who help themselves.” It’s a small-c conservative American point of view, and it’s what serves as truth in this show’s universe.
I don’t mean to be exhausting by advancing a class-based critique of a show by a man everyone knows is deeply conservative—indeed, a full-on Tory member of the House of Lords—or of a network whose driving interest in wealthy white people is already well established. But my lack of interest in the show is only slightly a matter of politics. It’s more that, beyond a normal, warmblooded amount of interest in a developing love triangle between Marian, a handsome young solicitor (Thomas Cocquerel), and the maybe-slightly-more-handsome young scion of the Russell family (Harry Richardson), I truly can’t bring myself to care about these people and their airless drawing room lives. My kingdom for a little bit of horse manure on their highly polished shoes!