There’s a scene on HBO’s new series “The Gilded Age” in which Carrie Coon, playing the aspirant socialite Bertha Russell, lectures one of her rivals. Bertha has the money to break into the whirl of New York City life in 1882, but lacks the intangible social class that would allow her to truly fit in. No matter: One of the women who has spurned Bertha has come to ask her for a favor, and Bertha decides to deliver a lesson instead. “I hesitate to teach the basics, but life is like a bank account,” she declares. “You cannot write a check without first making a deposit.”
This scene illustrates what makes this panoramic social drama about a bygone world work, and the obstacles it must overcome in getting there. When considered for a moment, this line, like much of the dialogue series creator Julian Fellowes, writing with Sonja Warfield, has penned for his characters, is aphoristic to a fault. Fellowes, never afraid to indulge cliché, outdoes himself throughout “The Gilded Age.” (Elsewhere, Christine Baranski’s Manhattan doyenne is “not concerned with facts, not if they interfere with my beliefs,” and advises a protégé to “only help those who help themselves.”) There’s a certain snap missing from many of the interactions between Fellowes’ characters, who can feel less as if they’re matching wits than as if they’re reading from the same joke book.
And yet Coon’s delivery and bearing carry the scene over the line — and the same is true for the acting across the board, as well as the commitment to a certain Edith Wharton realness on the show’s craft side. (The novelist may be some viewers’ reference point for this period, about which she wrote in “The Age of Innocence,” and “The Gilded Age” aims for her sensibility, if not her erudition.) “The Gilded Age,” whose long development saw it move from NBC to HBO, is ultimately about the clash between tradition and innovation. And the show itself seems to exist within that contradiction. A stodgily written costume drama lets in verve, irony, and passion on its margins, or through the cracks in the writing.
Coon’s Bertha is the linchpin of much of the show’s action: Her husband, a railroad tycoon (Morgan Spector) continues to consolidate wealth and to earn the fear of his competitors, but the family lacks soft power. That sort of ability to attract is inherited at birth by members of the city’s elite families, including Baranski’s and Cynthia Nixon’s sisters Agnes van Rhijn and Ada Brook. Agnes and Ada are forced to contemplate whether birthright or material wealth matters more when, in the show’s first episode, they greet their destitute niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson). This unfortunate young woman, the daughter of a spendthrift, arrives in New York with new friend Peggy (Denée Benton), whose ambition, and whose identity as a Black woman, further agitates the world of the van Rhijn-Brooks. Modernity, the welcome chaos of class mobility and incremental advancements for Black Americans, is coming for a class of people for whom stability has long been the watchword.
“The Gilded Age” draws on careerlong interests of “Gosford Park” and “Downton Abbey” writer Fellowes — class, tradition, and duty among them — while adding new elements to the mix. Race was not a fundamental concern for the characters on “Downton Abbey,” and it’s welcome news that here it is treated with sensitivity and an eye for nuance. (The flat pity with which Marian views Peggy comes in for complication.) What’s also new is a certain American-ness. At its best, “Downton Abbey” drew its energy from its upper-class characters being forced out of reticence by changing times. Here, even those most firmly ensconced in the firmament speak with a blunt directness that keeps the show racing forward.
Which may account for the drabness of some of the writing: When everyone says what they’re thinking, subtext must be found elsewhere. But it can indeed be found — in Coon’s blazing-eyed performance of self-interest, and in Baranski’s calculated, tactical deployments of warmth or of scorn. Both performers excel, as does Nixon, playing a character left behind by the machinations all around her; our concern for this familiar and naturally sympathetic performer helps lend dimension to a character whose role within the story can feel circumscribed. As for the younger cast members, Jacobson and Benton effectively develop chemistry despite an awkwardly staged first encounter; when they disagree, later on, it has real impact.
All of this takes place against backdrops and sewn into costumes of indulgent, rich quality; sets and costumes serve our sense of some of these characters both as possessed of immense privilege and as cosseted, shielded from the reality that can’t help rushing in. In its early going, “The Gilded Age” struggles in one area — dialogue — but excels in enough others to keep viewers of the right cast of mind engaged. To borrow a phrase, the show’s ambition has written a check that, thanks to elegant acting and careful attention to detail, “The Gilded Age” can cash.
“The Gilded Age” debuts Monday, January 24 at 9 p.m. E.T. on HBO.