Max: “The Gilded Age” starring Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector
Initially, I had concerns about “The Gilded Age” (Max). I found the performances overwrought, the stories soapy, and the dialogue too hokey. But now that Season 2 has wrapped, along with its epic finale, I’ve seen the light.
To be fair, “Gilded,” an American story, will never have the wit or subtlety of “Downton Abbey.” But the tale of how new money, represented by Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), posed a threat to old money, represented by Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (Donna Murphy) is fairly absorbing—and a feature of life in New York since its founding as a Dutch trading post in 1624.
In Season 2, the battle between the old guard and the new is fought on the playing fields of opera. Fairly true to history, old money wants to preserve the elitist Academy of Music and its limited number of boxes, while new money will spare no expense to introduce a much larger house, the Metropolitan Opera, with significantly more boxes available to anybody willing to write a big check.
The Old Money team includes Agnes van Rijn (Christine Baranski), a snooty dowager and a descendant of one of New York’s Old Dutch families; her sweet sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon); and their winsome niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), an orphan from the hinterlands who comes to New York and whom every eligible bachelor wants to court. The epitome of New Money is Bertha’s husband George (a terrific Morgan Spector from “The Plot Against America”), a shrewd robber baron whose railroads and steel mills enable Bertha to build modern-day palaces in New York and Newport.
“Gilded” also features a underclass of servants played by some of New York’s finest stage actors. Among them: Celia Keenan-Bolger, Kristine Nielson, Jack Gilpin, Ben Ahlers, and Michael Cera.
Other “Gilded” standouts include Nathan Lane who is appropriately sleazy as Ward McAllister, Mrs. Astor’s real-life confidante and the Jerry Zipkin of his day. A secondary plot involves Peggy Scott (Denee Benton), a talented and idealistic young Black journalist who is determined to right the wrongs of racism singlehandedly.
So one needs to ask one’s self: how much of “Gilded” is really gilded? Well, consider the evidence: much of the show was filmed onsite in Troy, New York, a once prosperous city where lavish structures from that era still stand. The drawing rooms and ballroom scenes were apparently filmed in the mansions of Newport, adding even more authenticity. The ladies’ ballgowns seem fairly true to the period, right down to the bustle that fashionable women had to wear back then.
In short, despite mustering every fiber of my being trying to resist this show, I eventually found it impossible to do so. But I also found myself with a question about a possible Season 3. Aunt Agnes, I’m talking to you.
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