An American Age of Greed Should Have Been Perfect TV Fodder

The Gilded Age, HBO’s new period drama, imitates the novelist Edith Wharton but entirely misses her insight.

Men and women in formal dress in "The Gilded Age"
Alison Cohen Rosa / HBO

The Gilded Age made its debut on HBO on January 24, which is also the writer Edith Wharton’s birthday—a detail that’s hard to ascribe to coincidence. Not only does the drama borrow Wharton’s milieu of 1880s New York City, but the show’s creator is also a self-proclaimed Whartonite. Julian Fellowes—or the Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, as he’s known in his native Britain—has said that The Custom of the Country, Wharton’s strikingly modern 1913 novel about a ruthless social climber, inspired him to start writing. His first major project, the Robert Altman–directed murder mystery Gosford Park, felt like a British homage to the American Wharton and her elegant skewering of social regimes via the ornate filigree of details that sustain them.

Gosford Park may have been a switchblade in the back of the culture Fellowes was raised in, but Downton Abbey—the series that made Fellowes’s name—was the gentlest of pokings at the English aristocracy. It was also pure soap opera gussied up as a big-budget costume drama, with an amnesia plot and malevolent housemaids and concupiscent Turkish diplomats meeting untimely ends in Lady Mary’s boudoir. Downton was never great art, but it had great actors doing essentially pantomime theater. Good defeated evil more reliably on Downton than in any major Hollywood franchise, leading to a series that had high drama but—with a few exceptions—very low stakes.

The Gilded Age, Fellowes’s new series, is something different again. Like Wharton’s work, it documents a time when the rapacious accumulation of American resources and capital by a handful of industrialists was causing a palpable shift in the social order. This is, we might say, timely terrain. But The Gilded Age, stacked with a revolving door of Broadway’s stars, feels not only flat but also myopic. It grabs from Wharton’s themes but somehow entirely elides her fundamental observation: that this culture is so corrupted that the only people who can thrive within it are either mindless or irredeemable.

If Downton cribbed from commedia dell’arte, The Gilded Age feels almost like Disney. It opens with a montage of PBS-familiar shots: sheep grazing in the green fields of Central Park, edifices rising up in stony grandeur, servants scurrying like mice. There’s a striking sense of unreality to it. Despite the size of the budgets involved—which was why the series, originally destined for NBC, was eventually shipped over to HBO—the city feels less like old New York than a Warner Bros. lot. Everything is too pristine. The overreliance on CGI to spruce up the scenery only adds to the uncanny-valley effect, as if we’re looking at dollhouses that have been elaborately constructed for full-size people.

This is not, to be fair to Fellowes, all that far from what’s actually happening in the show. An obscenely rich railroad tycoon, George Russell (played by Morgan Spector), and his wife, the sharp-elbowed striver Bertha (Carrie Coon), are moving into their new home on East 61st Street, a white building so ostentatious, it might make a museum blush. The house seems like a deliberate nod to the widow Mrs. Manson Mingott in The Age of Innocence, who audaciously builds “a large, pale house of cream-colored stone … in an inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park.” At odds with every other brownstone on the street, the Russells’ house (and the Russells themselves) are existentially offensive to their neighbor Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski). We know this because repeatedly saying so is her only discernible characteristic. “We only receive the old people in this house, not the new,” she sniffs to Marian (Louisa Jacobson) in one scene. “You are my niece and you belong to old New York.”

But does Marian belong, really? The scale of The Gilded Age means that handfuls of characters could be the outsiders through which we see the manifold bugs in the social system. There’s Marian, who wouldn’t be out of place in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence; she has the manners of May Welland, with occasional iconoclastic flashes of Ellen Olenska. Bertha, whose desire to get onto New York’s A-list is matched only by her inability to muzzle herself to do so, seems modeled in her ambitions after one of Wharton’s most ambitious protagonists, Undine Spragg, although she’s much less vacuous. And there’s the charming, career-minded Peggy (Denée Benton), a young Black woman who becomes Agnes’s secretary and who regularly hints at a tragic rupture in her relationship with her parents.

The first five episodes (of nine) made available for review reveal not much of anything about what the show is trying to do with these women. The opening credits in episodes following the pilot allude to a collision between micro- and macroeconomics—the ways in which money was literally shaping the country and encouraging a new national identity of aspiration. It’s hard to sympathize with the van Rhijns and their ilk, whose only purpose seems to be reveling in a system that’s elevated them and asserting their supposedly native superiority. But I resent the fact that I’m more inclined to sympathize with the Russells purely because Bertha is dryly intelligent and George apparently loves his wife. This is no moment to be on the side of the robber barons. Fellowes’s light touch feels ill-suited to his own material; in one episode, George’s machinations lead to tragedy for a competitor, and yet the whole interlude is brushed off as breezily as if he’d slightly cheated at backgammon.

Wharton is unlikely to have approved of such a half-hearted imitation of her work. No one more subtly rendered the toxicity in mannered society, the ugliness of a world in which status can be entirely divorced from morality. In 1947, the literary critic Diana Trilling wrote of Wharton’s The House of Mirth that it is “one of the most telling indictments of a social system based on the chance distribution of wealth, and therefore of social privilege, that has ever been written.” Wharton’s New York, fully in thrall to money, celebrity, and power, feels almost more feudal than Downton does. But The Gilded Age takes this teeming morass of a historical period and essentially focuses on a single animating question: Will Bertha win the reigning socialite Mrs. Astor’s approval? As social commentary goes, it’s less The Custom of the Country than The Real Housewives of Washington Square.

The whole thing feels much too rote and timid for HBO—even if the costumes deliberately evoke modern sensibilities and wouldn’t be out of place on the ladies of And Just Like That, who are trying as resolutely to assert their relevance in a changing world as Agnes is. The mood is too saturnine, the occasional nods to social criticism too stilted. In one scene, Peggy meets an editor at a Black newspaper who feels obliged to remind another journalist, not 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that “Lincoln was a Republican.” There are occasional flashes of Downton-esque absurdity: A French chef is a walking wheel of Gallic cheese; a housemaid schemes with a closeted gay man in an alliance ripped right out of the Crawley household. All in all, the show made me long for the opening, opera-set scene of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, where every detail—Newland’s gardenia, Ellen’s proffering of her hand—serves the idea that the characters’ lives are as much a performance as anything being acted out in front of them. In that scene, Wharton’s New York is a panopticon no resident can escape. The fourth episode of The Gilded Age ends at the opera; Marian looks out from her box, but sees only the stage.