'The Gilded Age' — Fellowes serves costume drama's second season

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday October 31, 2023
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Taissa Farmiga, Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector in 'The Gilded Age' season 2 (photo: Barbara Nitke/HBO)
Taissa Farmiga, Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector in 'The Gilded Age' season 2 (photo: Barbara Nitke/HBO)

In a continual concern and compassion for the extremely rich, especially the unhappy ones, in our country, "The Gilded Age" gifts us with a second season, now streaming on HBO MAX. For the uninitiated, this series is Lord Julian Fellowes' follow up to his iconic PBS series, "Downton Abbey."

Instead of Edwardian England, we sprint back to the 1880s in a period of rapid economic growth spurred on by industrialization, resulting in robber barons, who used exploitative practices to create monopolies in their fields, amassing great wealth, usually by paying low wages to their workers.

In New York City, this created a conflict in the upper classes between these new money families and older established clans, epitomized in this series by the power couple railroad magnate George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) versus the old-money van Rhijn sisters Agnes (Christine Baranski) and her spinster sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) and their penniless niece Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson, daughter of Meryl Streep, proving acting talent isn't hereditary). Last season was built on the premise of whether Marion will follow the established rules of society or create her own path. Aside from Agnes, no one seemed to care.

Blake Ritson and Kelli O'Hara in 'The Gilded Age' season 2 (photo: Barbara Nitke/HBO)  

Seasonal shift
This season the focus wisely shifts to the Russells, who were the breakout stars of season one, compared to the relatively boring Marion character. Bertha is denied a box at the Academy of Music by the old-money reigning queen Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy), cutting her unthrottled access to high society. Bertha decides to support the rival soon-to-be opened Metropolitan Opera House.

This clash of acquired wealth versus inherited wealth will dominate the season as Bertha attempts to convince some of the old guard to give up their Academy membership and switch to the as yet untested Metropolitan.

Caught in the middle is Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane, again sounding like Colonel Sanders of KFC). As gatekeeper of old New York social decorum and allied with Mrs. Astor, he's also friendly with Bertha. Whose side will win his loyalty, as a salivating turf war develops over a visiting Duke (Ben Lamb)?

Meanwhile, George has to respond with dissatisfied railroad workers (subsistent pay, unsafe conditions) who form a union and decide to strike. Busting it with scabs could lead to violence.

"We must stand together and introduce change when we decide, not them," cautions George to his fellow robber barons. Their kindhearted son Larry (Harry Richardson) becomes a boy toy in a scandalous forbidden liaison with an older recent widow (Laura Benanti).

Fair maid Marian takes a part-time job as an art teacher in a local school but is being romanced by a distant handsome but dull (David Furr) cousin widower with a young daughter taking Marion's class.

Aunt Agnes is appalled by Marian lowering herself to work for a living and isn't happy with Ada developing an attachment with the church's new friendly rector Luke (Robert Sean Leonard). It's actually a charming romance, but a warning; don't get too attached to the Luke character.

Agnes's gay son Oscar (Blake Ritson) —after his affair with another man ended in season one because his partner was tired of leading a closeted existence— decides he must secure a rich bride in Gladys Russell (Taissa Farmiga), which will lead to personal and financial disaster.

To answer critics who claim the show is only interested in frippery, we have Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), friend to Marion and former secretary to Agnes, but now a Black newspaper writer, travels with her editor, Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones) to cover the construction of a new Black school in Tuskegee, Alabama headed by Booker Washington. They must contend with the racist Jim Crow South, but also her increasing attraction to her married boss. And continuing with relevant "social" issues, when she returns to New York, she will help her mother (Audra McDonald) to stop the Board of Education from closing some "colored" schools.

The downstairs servants in both houses continue to toil for their wealthy bosses but their backstories are dull. You'll care much less about footman Jack Turner (Ben Ahlers) seeking a patent for a foolproof alarm clock he's invented than Bertha trying to get the Duke to attend her ball rather than Mrs. Astor's.

All these events are occurring as the Brooklyn Bridge is about to be completed by engineer John Roebling's wife Emily (it's true!) and its opening celebrated with fireworks.

Denée Benton and Sullivan Jones in 'The Gilded Age' season 2 (photo: Barbara Nitke/HBO)  

Glamorous gilded soap
On balance, the second season is an improvement over season one, for the simple reason that "The Gilded Age" has decided to embrace unapologetically what it always was: a glamorous period costume soap opera with every scene bigger and bolder, now extended to opulent estates in Newport. All eight episodes feature a huge party or elaborate dinner with glorious designer clothes and a flawless production design, so you have no doubt you are reliving high society 1880s New York with every detail checked for historical accuracy.

Fellowes, who either wrote each episode alone or with a woman co-author, uses every soap opera trick in the book: fatal illnesses, weddings, naked couples in bed (and yes we'd rather see Richardson's butt as opposed to Ritson's), last minute dire appearances of a presumably lost or late character, feuds, bankruptcy, etc.

To its credit, these cliché plots move fast as opposed to last year's Heinz ketchup-like pace and at times are absorbing. And most of the wonderful cast has been imported from the Broadway stage, giving much needed employment to NY actors.

However, the gay element prominent last year is almost totally absent this season with only two very brief cameos of Oscar's former lover John Adams (Claybourne Elder), and zilch concerning the obviously gay Ward McAllister. There is a refreshing appearance by Oscar Wilde visiting America in one episode, but no sexual hijinks here.

Fellowes's ambivalence about gay characters so prominent in "Downton Abbey" continues unabated here, with Oscar as the unlikable schemer (a la Downton's Barrow) practically obliterating the family fortune. Losing money and/or power, not love, is the chief sin in this series, so that "The Gilded Age" becomes the 1880s equivalent of that other contemporary HBO behemoth, "Succession."

Is it elitist? Of course it is! The series is quite content to wear its label as an escapist lavish melodrama with pride. Nor is it the least bit embarrassed of promoting its cause of how wonderful rich people really are. Someone must care about their plight, no matter how ridiculous.

Fellowes has accepted the reality that this series will never be as good or popular as "Downton Abbey." The downstairs/servants can't hold a candle either in their storylines or character development to Mrs. Hughes, Mr. Carson, or even Barrow.

But that doesn't mean we can't have fun anyway and all the period grandeur, superb actresses in stunning gowns, lots of catty lines (especially Agnes: "I'm going to have to ring for my smelling salts if you do not moderate your tone"), and inflated drama with the proper serving of a bowl of soup being life or death, will flutter any gay man's heart.

With the world in dire straits crumbling all around us, it's all welcome frivolity and we're fortunate "The Gilded Age, season 2," is more than happy to provide us with it.


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