In February of 2012, the most perfect mess of a show called Smash debuted on NBC. It purported to dramatize the making of a Broadway play; in this case, a musical about the life and times of Marylin Monroe. It was a disaster in virtually every sense; the writing was psychotic, the acting was all over the place (on the one hand, Angelica Houston and on the other, Katharine McPhee), and the songs were occasionally fantastic, but mostly very goofy. I have watched every episode more than once and like my abiding love for Showgirls, I could write volumes about the fascinating failures on display. I love a fascinating failure. It’s why I’m a co-host of a podcast about bad movies; I love it when a project makes all the wrong moves. So it goes with Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age on Max, a gloriously bad show that I am so glad is back.
It’s important to drill down on what makes The Gilded Age such a messy marvel. Fellowes is not exactly a subtle creator. He carries over to the show many of the devices he wore out making Downton Abbey, including his baseline love for the ruling class in which the most he’ll allow is that they’re maybe too traditionalist. The writing is medium-to-meh and hinges on the abilities of the cast to elevate it. This show began shooting during Covid lockdown, and as a result, the cast is full-to-bursting with Broadway stars and legends who were looking for gigs while Broadway was on pause. This is both a blessing and a curse because as apt as I am to watch Linda Emond or Donna Murphy or Debra Monk read out of the phonebook, there are so many stars (too many?) to the point that most of the legends on hand are in supporting roles so small it can be hard to remember they’re even there. Then there’s Louisa Jacobson, a daughter of Meryl Streep, who’s fine, but definitely under-experienced for someone leading the ensemble of an HBO-branded show. It doesn’t help that her character, Marian, had a pretty rote storyline involving a dead dad and a fuckboy lawyer named Tom that was difficult to care about. Alongside her is Denée Benton as Marian’s best friend, Peggy, who flat-out stole the whole show. It’s not only that Benton is a more experienced actor with a more diverse toolbox, but it’s also that Peggy’s story is much more interesting. What can I say? A story about a young, brilliant Black woman in Gilded Age New York trying to make it as a journalist is infinitely more compelling than whether Marian and Tom will get together.
As for the rest of the show, well, if you love watching powerhouse actors chew on fabulous scenery (real-life mansions used include the famous Breakers) and don’t mind a lack of coherent plot or character motivation, then it’s an absolute blast. You can argue that Carrie Coon is miscast as Alva Belmont stand-in Bertha Russell, but it’s undeniably fun to see her appear in sumptuous gowns and be a lace-gloved hellion upending the old money order with her brash new money. Morgan Spector as her robber baron husband George is a wonderful partner, and together, they make for a fun supervillain couple who seem genuinely hot for each other. One hope I’ll release into the ether is that the show contrives a reason for George to be shirtless more often because I see no reason he can’t have his abs out as he destroys American labor. Their daughter Gladys, as played by Taissa Farmiga, is as doe-eyed and sheltered as ever and is still pursued by Oscar van Rhijin (Blake Ritson), who is still closeted and still looks like a baby Adrian Brody. He secretly pines for his ex, John, a descendent of John Adams. Oscar’s mother Agnes (Christine Baranski) and aunt Ada (Cynthia Nixon) are still rattling around in their fabulous mansion like a mismatched Statler and Waldorf. Baranski seems to realize that she’s the Dowager Countess character and revels in being a snobby terror while Nixon … I don’t know. Nixon still plays Ada like she’s stoned or maybe smacked her head on a rock in between scenes. Special mention must be made of Audra McDonald, who plays Peggy’s mother, and if they don’t contrive a reason for her to sing, someone isn’t doing their job right!
If you’re a history buff, this show will occasionally meet your standard for accuracy but mainly uses historical figures to weave historical fiction. However, the writing and plotting is such that it feels more often like fanfic, with Marian as our Mary Sue whom all the characters are obsessed with despite being the least interesting. It’s nonetheless a lot of fun to look up figures who appear on the show including the likes of Clara Barton, Mamie Fish, Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane alert!) and Timothy Thomas Fortune. Did I know about high society “black sheep” Arabella Huntington before Jeanne Tripplehorn played her stand-in Sylvia Chamberlain? I did not! The overall effect is like a Forrest Gump world where historical figures come and go, usually played by someone you know and love. It’s a singular feeling watching absurd material be acted by legends and icons.
We are just one episode into the new season, but all signs point to this being the same silly diversion it was before, and I hope it stays that way. As is the case with a Fellowes show, the plot deployed in a series of check-ins with each of the many characters. Marian did her dizzy thing, Peggy starred as the real lead, the frocks and tuxes were all fabulous and terrible in turn. Sure, there are many aspects of the show that keep it from being “good,” but like Smash, it’s the flaws that make it so much fun. In its second season, Smash improved itself on many fronts, and more’s the pity. It was much more fun being bad, and I hope Gilded Age has the sense to stay the way it is.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.