Julian Fellowes’s new historical confection The Gilded Age is as towering and empty as an untouched croquembouche, one meant only for display. In this ornate standoff between the women of late-19th-century New York high society, a heavy-hitter cast of dames — Carrie Coon, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald, Cynthia Nixon, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Donna Murphy, Linda Emond — play characters arrayed along a sliding social scale of status, from old money to new money to none. They jockey for position: Who will attend the arriviste’s open house? Will that couple really allow their niece to take a walk with that powerless young lawyer? Mrs. Astor is hosting a charity bazaar — who will be allowed to stand at the booths?
The Gilded Age, airing Mondays on HBO beginning January 24, is about the incursion of new railroad money into genteel, well-bred New York. Bertha and George Russell (Coon and Morgan Spector) are snobbish and grasping up-and-comers, recent arrivals to the Upper East Side desperately seeking entry into the echelons of the Astors and Vanderbilts. Agnes van Rhijn (Baranski) and her sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) are their old-money neighbors across the street, appalled at the extravagance of the Russells’ new mansion and the coarse intrusion of their wealth. These tensions are familiar. The Gilded Age gestures in the direction of “wealth and its capacity to corrupt” and “older generations resent the new.” It veers through “the narcissism of small differences” and takes several swings past “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
But it isn’t about any of those things, not really. It carries no coherent message, tone, or point of view from one plotline to the next, no organizing sense of what it is trying to be, beyond a display case of gowns and a lesson in the vital importance of guest lists. It is a hot-air balloon overladen with decorative bunting. If you happened to be strolling past a spectacle like that and had a few spare minutes, you would absolutely stop and watch. If the balloon’s big and gaudy enough, who cares if it struggles to leave the ground?
The series was on a course for NBC before landing at HBO, and you can tell: Despite the satin and marble and impeccable production design that comes with an HBO-size budget, The Gilded Age’s writing is prim, with a network-y bluntness. There’s no raunchiness, no explicit sex, and Coon’s Mrs. Russell spends much of the early episodes haughtily examining her luxurious home while stating her thesis in the baldest language imaginable. When her husband suggests that she invite her sister or friends to stay with them, she says, “I don’t want my old friends. I want new friends.” Later, in case you hadn’t caught on, her husband says again: “I wish you’d invited some of the old crowd.” “We’re headed in a different direction now, George!” Mrs. Russell replies. “We’re joining a different club.”
While everyone else tries to soften or wink at the show’s melodrama, Coon plays Mrs. Russell straight, inhabiting the character with such intensity you can almost believe social climbing is a worthy goal. Intentionally or not, The Gilded Age proves Mrs. Russell’s point: She is better, and more interesting, than all the other old-money families who insist on excluding her.
One imagines that Baranski could unhinge her jaw and swallow Mrs. Russell alive if she wanted. In The Gilded Age, though, her Agnes van Rhijn has little to do beyond sitting calmly in her stuffy old-fashioned home and dictating letters to her new secretary, Miss Peggy Scott (Denée Benton). Miss Scott enters the story at the same time as Mrs. van Rhijn’s ingenue niece, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson, who does not use the last name Gummer but whose jawline and deep-set eyes immediately identify her as one). Miss Brook could provide a useful outside perspective. She could rebel. The character does a little of both, but she doesn’t commit — she may bristle at her aunts and occasionally arch her eyebrows, but by and large she sits placidly and smiles. None of this gives the van Rhijn household enough vibrancy to escape Mrs. Russell’s gravity well.
The issue is even more pronounced for Miss Scott and her mother Dorothy (McDonald). There is space here for a complicated story about Miss Scott, who longs for a career in journalism that everyone tells her would be impossible for a Black woman like her. In the first five episodes given to critics, though, she’s not much more than an object lesson for Miss Brook — an opportunity for her naïve white friend to see a Black woman as something more than her race.
A series with Baranski, McDonald, Coon, and the rest could be an exciting prospect. Here, they’re all so siloed it feels like being cheated of the good stuff. There’s an aimlessness to The Gilded Age: Somewhere along the line, someone forgot to ask why a show about these particular characters at this particular time would be compelling. It’s not hard to imagine what the answers might be, but the series has no interest in offering them up: When it comes to reasons to care, The Gilded Age is strictly BYO. There’s ample surface appeal — my God, the gowns — but there’s a hollow space where The Gilded Age’s emotional core should be and a large question mark next to the central issue of whether Mrs. Russell’s social conquest matters at all for anyone other than her. As a result, the show is at its best when it’s at its most trivial, fully ignoring substance in favor of style.
The highlight of the first five episodes, The Gilded Age’s crown jewel, is a scene between Mrs. van Rhijn’s butler Bannister (Simon Jones) and Mrs. Russell’s butler Church (Jack Gilpin). The glib Bannister is aghast at the lack of taste in Mrs. Russell’s house, and Church is on the back foot; he knows this new-money household, where they have warm chicken soup for luncheon, is not up to par. “It’s nothing important,” Bannister says, when Church asks what’s amiss with a table setting, before continuing, “I would not lay the fruit knife and fork. They arrive with the fruit plate and finger bowl.” He then proceeds to malign every element — the glasses set in a line when they should be in a square, the colored glass goblet that should be clear. In this one scene, The Gilded Age is able to convey how much all of this silliness does matter. Briefly, the stakes are crystal: This is a war, and the battlefield is an eight-foot-long table covered in white linen. “Of course there’s nothing right or wrong about these things,” Bannister concludes. “They’re simply a matter of taste.”