Before the writers’ and actors’ strikes shut down the promotional-tour circuit, it seemed like you couldn’t read three entertainment headlines without coming across some showrunner proudly proclaiming their television show to be “like a 10-hour movie.” The line has long since become the peak-TV-age equivalent of old press-tour chestnuts like At its heart, it’s really about family, and the message behind this invocation of a “higher” artform is clear: Our show isn’t a beach read, it’s literature. The discourse around television and the promotional apparatus on which that discourse feeds both exist to convince you that shows aren’t just shows– that they should be important, impactful, zeitgeist-defining, episodic pseudo-movies you need to watch.
The trouble with being a necessity is that it makes it so hard to be a frivolity. The marketplace for must-see TV has become so crowded that more and more I’ve come to appreciate shows that feel less like cultural homework and more like procrastination. The Gilded Age, whose second season premieres this Sunday on Max, is that kind of show—a transporting lark about 19th century snobs and their petty squabbles, where the barrier for entry never feels very high. It’s debatable whether it’s inherently mind-expanding or pure escapism, but watching it always feels like leisure.
It’s not that The Gilded Age’s storylines are simplistic or that its continuity isn’t important—the Peggy Scott’s (Deneé Benton) deep dark secret, teased in the pilot, took almost the entire first season to play out. It’s that The Gilded Age takes such delight in the detail work and such pleasure in every turn of phrase that watching it feels more like a tennis match than a scavenger hunt. You don’t have to understand every nuance of the backstory to know when a character has scored a point. And in The Gilded Age, someone’s always firing a topspin winner down the line.
Christine Baranski plays Agnes Van Rhijn, the widowed leader of New York’s “old money” establishment, with delicious imperiousness. In the pilot episode, she demands that her newly-arrived niece, Marian Brook (played by Meryl Streep’s daughter, Louisa Jacobson) stop dressing in mourning black– she’s discovered that her aristocratic father has died broke and left her penniless—so that Marian can enter society and find a husband. “I won’t have you hanging about the edge of things like a lonely crow,” Agnes stage-snarls, in the politest way possible, as her spinster sister, played by Cynthia Nixon, looks on.
Ever watched two Thai boxers spar? Their trainers are always shouting Ohhh and Ahhh when somebody lands a kick or an elbow. I find myself watching The Gilded Age in much the same way.
MARIAN BROOK: I thought I might find a job. Would that be out of the question?
ADA BROOK: (gasps)
AGNES VAN RHIJN: Only if you wish to live with me.
Gilded Age’s courtly language sharpens the characters’ natural passive-aggressiveness, which is always so on-brand that it’s easy to just pop in any time without worrying so much about what you missed or what will happen next. So much of TV marketing is about the message, the hook, the torn-from-the-headlines of it all. That makes for an urgent sales pitch, but really, the root of every good story is people and place. The Gilded Age is New York, the 1880s. That’s basically it—no “fan theories” required.
Mostly it depicts a battle between old money and new, as social mores shift in the booming late Victorian era (when “new money” was still a relatively novel concept). As creator Julian Fellowes told the LA Times about these characters, “They redesigned being rich. They created a rich culture that we still have—people who are rich are rich in a way that was established in America in the 1880s, ’90s.”
As much as Succession (undeniably one of our best shows, but everyone knows that) was meant to be a takedown of the rich, there are times when you sensed that it couldn’t help but be awed by them. Succession’s characters were assholes who acted like petty children most of the time, but even in their avariciousness, they were still so glamorous, so worldly, so knowledgeable about designers and fine wines, that they often seemed like our middle-class fantasies of wealthy people come to life. Even in their awfulness, the Roys and their peers were slightly aspirational and a little remote.
In Gilded Age, created by actual aristocrat Julian Fellowes (full title: Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford), a member of the House of Lords in addition to the creator of Downton Abbey, what seems intended as a genteel comedy of manners often has the whiff of contempt borne of familiarity. It’s as if Fellowes’ proximity to wealth has afforded him an ability to recognize the many shades of it. That’s not to say that The Gilded Age is a better or worse show than Succession—more that it’s a nice complement, a more openly theatrical foil.
All About Eve writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz once said “You know, I’ve written about a lot of women—most of the time not as truthfully or perceptively as I would have liked to, for various reasons—and I’ve speculated about hundreds. They’re my favorite humans. Pondering men, by comparison, is staring at alphabet blocks.” Watching The Gilded Age, you get the sense Fellowes feels similarly. The men mostly fop around dandily or aggressively do business to each other, leaving the women—Baranski, Nixon, Benton, later Jean Tripplehorn in a brilliant arc—to carry the plot and get most of the juiciest lines.
As good as they all are, with Nixon and Tripplehorn especially doing some of their finest work, this show’s undisputed queen bee is Carrie Coon. Fellowes mostly just lets her cook. Coon plays Bertha Russell, the wife to railroad tycoon George Russell (played by Morgan Spector) and a grasping new money striver trying to scheme her way into New York’s high society establishment. While “the potato digger’s daughter” is an objectively horrid woman and often a cruel mother to her teenage daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga, whom the show delights in tormenting with a series of godawful hairstyles), Coon plays Bertha with such care and nuance, and with such a depth of pathos, that you often can’t help rooting for her. You will, honest to God, find yourself earnestly thinking The other robber barons’ wives have been very unfair to Bertha Russell. Every episode further cements Coon as one of our greatest living actors.
Beyond the main cast, almost every episode seems to introduce a new ringer, usually a Broadway actor doing a one or two-episode arc as some obscure Gilded Age figure, from Ashlie Atkinson as socialite Mamie Fish to Nathan Lane in full Foghorn Leghorn mode as “the social arbiter of high society,” Ward McAllister. They’re almost universally delicious.
Some shows have a message that resonates, or are so groundbreaking in form or subject matter that they make you rethink your ideas about what television can be. Other shows, whatever their artistic merit or caloric content, at the root of it are just a good hang. That there probably aren’t many fan theories about Cheers are mostly a testament to the fact that it doesn’t need any. The Gilded Age is a bit of a trifle, delicious by design and best enjoyed slightly guiltily.