TV Review: The Gilded Age (Season 1)

I still remain in awe of how Julian Fellowes has a career as a writer but the first series of The Gilded Age is often a fine showcase for its cast of Broadway royalty

“I haven’t been thrilled since 1865

I really wasn’t a fan of the first episode of The Gilded Age but a cast full of Broadway royalty meant that I was always going to persevere with this first season. And from slow beginnings, the series did actually improve, albeit within the confines of what a Julian Fellowes-conceived show can ever do so. 

Set in 1880s New York City, the show hedges its bet about where it actually wants to focus. The main arena is ostensibly the clash between new money and old, the closed doors of society being assailed by hyper-rich newcomers. But being Fellowes, it’s also about their servants with whom they have unreasonably cordial relations.

And it being American, it needs to include race and this is the most ham-fisted of all, the inclusion of the rising African-American upper classes as a sub-sub-plot shunted off to the side. Worse than that though is the way in which the desperate need to keep everything candy-sweet means that there’s an entirely dishonest portrayal of racist attitudes (or otherwise) in this section of society. Pretending they weren’t prevalent (even if Christine Baranski is there) helps no-one.

Denée Benton does well regardless though, as aspiring writer Peggy. And as the Maggie Smith Dowager Countess role, Baranski’s old-school Agnes is wonderfully withering with all the best one-liners. The great Carrie Coon though is lumbered with the worst characterisation and dialogue as the stiffly ambitious Bertha, the chief arriviste who is allowed no discernible personality traits over the 9 episodes. And as one of the lead characters, this is a big problem.

For around her is an endless swirl of supporting characters whose significance you’re never quite of. This company is often great fun when it is the likes of Audra McDonald, Nathan Lane, Donna Murphy, and Kelli O’Hara swishing about in their finery. The domestic classes fare less well as their bland chirpiness and flat storylines fail to make us engage with anyone below the stairs. The show is watchable to be sure but it rarely grabbed my attention.

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