HBO's 'The Gilded Age' sparkles but lacks substance – The Michigan Daily

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HBO’s new period drama “The Gilded Age,” in an unusual feat likely unintended by the creative team, is precisely what the title describes: gilded. With the impressive costumes and detailed set decorations, it presents surface-level splendor and beauty that lacks depth in actuality.
A new creation by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”), “The Gilded Age” hones in on the interpersonal dynamics of the upper class in New York City of 1882. Fellowes creates a visual world just as eye-catching as that in “Downton Abbey,” but he misses the mark where “Downton Abbey” soared, as “The Gilded Age” fails to hold your attention when it comes to the plot and characters.
When her father dies, young Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson, “Gone Hollywood”) is forced to move in with her two aunts who share an estate in the world of old-money aristocrats. The aunts, Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski, “The Good Fight”) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon, “And Just Like That…”), had an estranged relationship with their brother in the years leading up to his death and struggle in their own ways when Marian enters their living situation. Their difficulties are exacerbated by Marian’s empowered mindset as she pushes to build relations with the new-money family across the street, the Russells. Mrs. Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife”) will go to any length to secure a place for herself and her husband, railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector, “Nanny”), in the upper-class world of East 61st Street.
This show literally sparkles and glimmers. It is full of rich and deep jewel tones, velvety textures and satin dresses that generate an expensive environment deeply fitting for the aristocratic world of the show. The two featured houses, one of the old-money family, the van Rhijns, and the other of the new-money family, the Russells, are both splendid and successfully add to the premise of the show. The Russells’ house is full of new marble and vastly spacious rooms. As the architect comments on what might seem like a wry joke to the audience, it is “big enough to be splendid without being oppressively so.” In a stark opposite, the van Rhijns’s estate is full of lived-in comfort. While the Russells’ home is big just because it can be, the van Rhijns know they don’t have to create a world of prosperity around themselves, and they don’t have to win over those around them. Their estates’ rooms may be smaller, but they are cozier and more welcoming with warm lighting and detailed upholstery.
One of the show’s failings is its inability to establish any high stakes. According to the premise, there should be tension between Marian and the aunts, but the home fails to be seen as anything other than welcoming. Beyond a few mentions of boundaries put between the kind of people Marian talks to, these don’t ultimately lead to any significant conflict. They all simply coexist while the aunts attempt to manipulate Marian’s prospects for marriage and a stable future. 
The Russells, on the other hand, present an unstable dynamic, with Mr. and Mrs. Russell and their two kids failing to feel like a unified family unit as they flounder in an intensely cutthroat social circle. While the central family of “Downton Abbey” is unstable too, the tension within those characters is definitively intentional and what makes the show so dynamic. In “The Gilded Age,” however, no characters achieve the level of interest “Downton Abbey” garnered. Mrs. Russell is the most enticing of all the characters, with perhaps the exception of Agnes van Rhijn, as she is the most outwardly determined and decisive. Yet her ambitions and drastic attempts to join the old-money community seem predictable, and her motivations are fairly unexplained thus far. 
With the rest of the season still to come, there remains hope for the show to reach the level of entrancement it seems to think it already possesses. Hopefully, it will delve into deep, past the gilded, surface-level problems it currently emphasizes without providing anything enticing to keep the story going.
Daily Arts Contributor Mallory Edgell can be reached at

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