Monday night brings the end of what has been one of 2022’s most indulgent pleasures — and one that calls to mind the TV of a decade prior. HBO’s “The Gilded Age” has made a strong argument for the efficacy of series creator Julian Fellowes’ method as a deliverer of narrative delight.
Every episode has been an hourlong fantasia in which the mind, unbothered by a plot that seems at best ornamental, is free to roam — a pleasant, happy state of what Gen Z might call “smooth-brained” experience, untroubled and uncomplicated by the firing of synapses or the development of nuance. The series is about the struggle to rise in a sclerotic, class-obsessed society, with Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector playing arriviste society newbies whose ambition is only matched by their devotion to one another. We root for them to succeed, both because their frank self-belief is more of our own time than of their own and because their continued emergence will deploy more of Coon’s big, bold, endlessly watchable performance.
The opponents to Coon and Spector’s Bertha and George Russell are, in large part, paper tigers. It’s a classic Fellowes trick to establish that his characters face opposition, and then to have that opposition be easily rolled over, bringing near-instant gratification. And Bertha’s occasional real degradation — the moments when she faces a social obstacle she cannot fix — bring out new tones in Coon’s wild performance. A recent scene in which she was escorted out of a Newport mansion through the back door so as to go undetected by the matron of the house played like a horror film, with Coon, enduring the torment of humiliation, as its scream queen.
There’s much else going on in “The Gilded Age” — including the twinned stories of two young women, played by Louisa Jacobson and Denée Benton, attempting to find their footing, and the careful and observant eye of Christine Baranski’s town doyenne, deployed here as Maggie Smith was on Fellowes’ “Downton Abbey.” This is a show on which no less an eminence than Cynthia Nixon is content to play a relatively minor supporting role; many plates are spinning. But the soul of what “The Gilded Age” is up to lies with the Russells, whose ongoing quest drives the show and gives it a sort of uncomplicated, easily rootable appeal.
This isn’t Fellowes’ first such triumph. Back in 2011, “Downton Abbey” became a near-instant hit stateside, thanks to a potent combination: Its unabashed soapiness and its willingness to be somewhat prosaic. Characters would endure nightmarish trials, but virtue would be rewarded and wrongdoing punished. Virtue could, indeed, take the form of being “ahead of one’s time” — Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary had values that likely resembled those of many 21st-century viewers, and, so long as she balanced those with sufficient respect for tradition, she remained our heroine. Bertha Russell, today, introduces some more vituperativeness and need into the equation, but the basic beats of what Fellowes is up to remain the same.
“Downton” was stripped of the irony and skepticism that director Robert Altman had brought to Fellowes’ script for “Gosford Park.” Its big emotions took place within a context of reverence for wealth and power, an equation that eventually lost its balance. But the early going was remarkable.
So it is with “The Gilded Age,” a show that is less interested in dismantling power than it is in nestling up close enough to it to see everything. Bertha Russell wants to be a part of society because having one’s intrinsic value seen and celebrated by others is fun, and so is going to parties and wearing nice clothes. Coon, wisely, plays Bertha as a series of emotions that are instantly recognizable and deliciously uncomplicated. The ease and delight of “The Gilded Age” lies in its absence of complication, its willingness to let things be as they are.
Which may sound like — and may be! — faint praise. But this much is true: When “The Gilded Age” is off the air, its particular spot in this viewer’s TV diet will take a while to fill. “The Gilded Age” is not difficult viewing. But it is also not about nothing — its characters want and feel things that are primally recognizable. Julian Fellowes deserves credit for once again finding his way towards artful, addictively watchable television. And viewers deserve the opportunity to see many, many more seasons.