Monday night brings the end of what was one of the most indulgent pleasures of 2022 — and one reminiscent of TV from a decade earlier. HBO’s “The Gilded Age” has made a strong case for the effectiveness of series creator Julian Fellowes’ method as a purveyor of narrative pleasure.
Each episode was an hour-long fantasy in which the mind, unhampered by a plot that seems graceful at best, is allowed to roam freely – a pleasant, happy state of what Gen Z might call a “smooth” experience, undisturbed and uncomplicated. by the firing of synapses or the development of nuance. The series centers on the struggle to ascend in a sclerotic, class-obsessed society, with Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector as newcomers to society whose ambition is matched only by their devotion to each other. We hope they succeed, both because their heartfelt conviction is more of our time than their own, and because their continued emergence will deploy more of Coon’s great, daring, endlessly watchable feats.
Bertha and George Russell’s opponents of Coon and Spector are largely paper tigers. It’s a classic Fellowes ploy to identify his characters face opposition, and then easily flip that opposition, yielding near-instant gratification. And Bertha’s occasional real demotion—the moments when she’s faced with a social obstacle she can’t resolve—brings new notes to Coon’s wild performance. A recent scene in which she was escorted out the back door from a Newport mansion to go undetected by the house’s matron played out like a horror movie, with Coon, enduring the agony of humiliation, as his scream queen.
There’s a lot more going on in “The Gilded Age” – including the stories of two young women, played by Louisa Jacobson and Denée Benton, trying to find their way, and the careful and watchful eye of Christine Baranski’s urban doyenne, here deployed as Maggie Smith was on Fellowes’ “Downton Abbey.” This is a show in which none other than Cynthia Nixon is content with a relatively small supporting role; play a lot of records. But the soul of what “The Gilded Age” is up to lies with the Russells, whose ongoing quest drives the show and gives it a kind of straight-forward, easy-to-root appeal.
This is not Fellowes’ first triumph. In 2011, “Downton Abbey” became an almost instant hit in the United States, thanks to a powerful combination: its unabashedly soapiness and its willingness to be slightly prosaic. Characters would endure nightmarish ordeals, but virtue would be rewarded and wrongdoing punished. Virtue can indeed take the form of being “ahead of your time” – Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary had values that likely resembled those of many 21st century viewers, and as long as she balanced them with enough respect for tradition, she remained ours. heroine. Bertha Russell introduces a little more malice and need into the equation today, but the basics of what Fellowes plans to do remain the same.
“Downton” was stripped of the irony and skepticism director Robert Altman had brought to Fellowes’ script for “Gosford Park.” The great emotions took place in a context of reverence for wealth and power, an equation that eventually lost its balance. But the early departure was remarkable.
It’s the same with “The Gilded Age,” a show that’s less interested in dismantling power than nesting close enough to see it all. Bertha Russell wants to be a part of society because it’s fun to see and celebrate your intrinsic worth by others, just like going to parties and wearing nice clothes. Coon wisely plays Bertha as a series of emotions that are instantly recognizable and wonderfully uncomplicated. The ease and joy of “The Gilded Age” lies in the absence of complications, the willingness to let things be as they are.
Which may sound like – and could be! – vague praise. But this is true: When “The Gilded Age” is off the air, it will take a while to fill its specific spot in this viewer’s TV diet. “The Gilded Age” isn’t hard to watch. But it’s also not for nothing – the characters want and feel things that are recognizable in the first place. Julian Fellowes deserves credit for reinventing his way into artful, addictively watchable television. And viewers deserve the chance to see many, many more seasons.