The Gilded Age on HBO premiered this week and, as a history buff, I tuned in with eager anticipation. The Gilded age refers to an incredibly interesting time in the history of the United States as the country transitioned to industrialization.
New money families arose and began to challenge the established wealth that dated back to colonial times. Many of the great family names still around today, Westinghouse, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Roosevelt, Morgan, Guggenheim, Vanderbilt, and more ascended at this time. The time frame gives us a huge historical reality to play with and so many plots to explore.
I eagerly anticipated watching the first episode. I was somewhat disappointed for reasons I’ll detail below but I think the show has a lot of promise. On with the review!
The Gilded Age Plot
The major storyline of The Gilded Age is the conflict between new money and old in the New York social and business world. The Russell family is new money and George is the classic robber baron of the railroad industry. His wife, Bertha, tries desperately to find a place in New York with the established families.
In contrast are the van Rhijn ladies who represent old and snobby money. They want nothing to do with the Bertha and her social plans. The conflict between Bertha and Agnes van Rhijn is the driving force of the story although the younger generation has a role to play as well.
Too Much too Fast
The speed at which the plot developed in the opening episode left my head spinning. We met character after character in a dizzying array of scenes that left me without attachment to any of them. It’s a real shame because several of the characters have an enormous potential to feed future plots.
Peggy Scott as a young writer of ambition. Larry Russel as the son of the George and Bertha, a spirited young fellow eager to be in the world. Gladys Russel as the shy and sweet daughter of new money. Several of the servants in both houses including the scheming Turner and the wise Watson piqued my interest.
I don’t mention Marian Brooks, the niece of Agnes, because the young girl is incredibly boring; but I will deal with that later.
A Whole Season of Potential Gone in One Episode
Sadly, a huge amount of potential was lost as we sprinted through an opening episode that I argue might have been an entire season. The failed party hosted by Bertha served as the climax of the episode. To my mind this should have been the denouement to the entire season.
The premier episode might center around young Marian Brook and the difficult financial state brought on by her father’s reckless spending. The relationship between her and the lawyer, her father’s estrangement from his sisters. Then we might switch to Peggy and her family troubles. The incident that caused her to separate from her father. We might end with the two meeting at the rail station.
The second episode might center on finishing up the magnificent Russel home. Focusing on the two children and Bertha’s ambitions. Spending some time getting to know George and his financial success, how it happened, the old life they are leaving an attempt to reach the upper crust of society. We might meet some of their old friends and finish with the family moving into the new house.
In any case, I’m not going to outline an entire season here but it’s clear to me they rushed things far too fast and left many juicy plots behind in their eagerness to get to the failed party. I feel like I missed out on an entire season of the Gilded Age because of the incessant rush.
The acting is stiff and wooden to a level that I can only attribute to the director. It’s as if the actors, many quality performers, are looking over their shoulder to make sure the nun isn’t going to smack them with a ruler because they showed the slightest bit of emotion.
I’m guessing this is designed to display the ultra-formal speech used back in those days. Maybe I’m reading too much into it and it’s just bad acting but I don’t think so. Poor Louisa Jacobson, who portrays Marian and is the center of the story, is like a wooden block. She looks terrified she might make a mistake in every scene. She is not alone though.
Almost everyone is wooden including Carrie Coon as Bertha. Bertha and Marian are the main characters of the story! Even Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski, established and quality actors, as the van Rhijn aunts, appear almost frightened to actually perform.
I must take a moment to praise Audra McDonald and Donna Murphy as Dorothy Scott and Mrs. Astor. The two brought real emotion and life to the otherwise dull character interactions. Blake Riston as Oscar van Rhijn was also quite good although his arc seemed fit for a season long storyline rather than something to be quickly revealed in the first episode.
I’m not completely disappointed with The Gilded Age. It had a few good moments and I think if the actors are allowed to act and the pace of the story slows, there’s a good chance it might become an excellent series.
The first episode is disappointing.