Movie review

The Gilded Age Sends Downton Abbey To the Past and Across the Pond | TV/Streaming

But “The Gilded Age” is mostly interested in exploring Marian’s status as a window into both worlds, which isn’t nearly as exciting as one would hope. Jacobson injects a welcome naïveté to the role, to be sure, and her dynamic with Peggy is refreshingly aware of the unspoken racial rifts between them. (In one episode, she pays a surprise visit to Peggy’s house in the largely-Black borough of Brooklyn to donate some old shoes, only to learn that her presumption that Peggy’s family was poor was misplaced.) Benton, for her part, shines when she’s allowed to take center stage outside of a white gaze; her scenes with her rich parents (including the always-luminous Audra MacDonald) and a Black newspaperman interested in her stories are some of the show’s most intriguing. For an America in the process of elevating itself to prosperity, these are the moments that come close to acknowledging that privilege isn’t afforded to some. 

But for its impeccable cast and presentation, “The Gilded Age” occasionally bites off more than it can chew. Individual scenes shine, but the pacing is rather inconsistent, and major subplots seem to come and go in the background with little fanfare. A couple of episodes in, George’s underhanded machinations result in calamity for an alderman whose bill he needed to tank; apart from some strong words from his wife to Bertha, it hardly factors into the overall story. Many of the younger characters drift along in the background, from the Russell’s demure daughter (Taissa Farmiga) to Agnes’ dandy son Oscar (Blake Ritson), whose clandestine gay love affair is the spiciest the series truly gets. There’s even an erstwhile Romeo and Juliet story as Marian starts spending time with the Russells’ collegiate son Larry (Harry Richardson), but he hardly registers as a character. 

Still, a lot of narrative chickens have yet to roost, and there are enough ephemeral delights in “The Gilded Age” to make it worth an initial gander. Baranski still purrs bone-dry witticisms with the best of them (“You’ll be thrilled!” Nixon chirps at her; her withering response? “I haven’t been thrilled since 1865.”). Coon’s icy gaze portends social calculations too devious to contemplate. Plus, there’s a Cocker Spaniel named Pumpkin, so it can’t be all bad. 

For better or worse, “The Gilded Age” carries all of the strengths and weaknesses of “Downton Abbey” to a Yankee milieu. It’s gorgeous and beautifully staged, with all the comforting pageantry that its period setting allows. And Fellowes seems more game to openly critiquing America’s class and race divides than he was in his sun-dappled nostalgia for King George’s England. But can you really be that critical of the forces that built such ostentatious wealth when showcasing that wealth is part of the appeal? Time will tell whether Fellowes’ trans-Atlantic experiment will work, or if this kind of Merchant-Ivory formula has finally run its course. 

The Gilded Age premieres on HBO January 24th. The first five episodes were screened for review.

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