Monday, June 27

The Downtown Abbey creator left out a crucial element of his new show.


Although Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner referred to “The Gilded Age” as a pejorative when they used it as the title for their 1873 novel—that’s “gold,” like something that looks like gold but isn’t—Americans who consume Historical entertainment have long gravitated toward the sexier aspects of the period between the end of Reconstruction and World War I. Those robber barons were blindly robbing everyone, sure, but they were also richAnd that’s always fun! now here it comes the golden age, the new HBO series of downton abbey creator Julian Fellowes, who hopes to capture that interest in the savvy capital hoarders of yesteryear.

The once planned connections of the program with the city ​​center universe, including the courtship of Robert Crawley and Cora Levinson, never really materialized, although the golden age it has all the dresses, beautiful architecture, and benches of chimes calling the servants that a Downton fan could want. It looks sumptuous, and the streets are cleansed, despite all the horse-drawn carriages. Fellowes, with minor exceptions, hasn’t capitalized on history for characters either, preferring to invent a universe of rich “old” and “new” who can fight each other over literally nothing.

We have Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon as Agnes van Rhijn and Ada Brook, the wealthy aunts of Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), the naïve whose arrival at her home on E. 61St. Street after the death of his father sets the plot of the series in motion. Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon are the Russells, a new-money railroad tycoon and his wife who are knocking on the door of New York society. Charity teas and dances and bazaars are planned at homes; invitations are issued; attendance and absence are discussed endlessly. At one point, Mrs. Russell, while having breakfast in bed, sees a note in the newspaper about a charity bazaar moving from the Armory to a hotel and gets so upset that she flips her breakfast tray over; the music swells. (She had offered his home as a backup location, you see! Why wouldn’t those women accept her?)

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The only thing at stake is an infinitesimal difference between the rich whose ancestors have been in Pennsylvania for a century and a half, the rich whose parents were from Ireland, and the soon-to-be-rich lawyers. Who cares?

The main conflict driving the golden age—whether the Russells, and by proxy the rest of the wealthy New Yorkers who are rapidly amassing mounds of cash in what may have been the most lopsided moment in American history, whether or not they are inducted into the high society—is so boring and low stakes, I sink into despair at the thought of watching an entire show revolving around it. To be clear, the problem is not a lack of historical accuracy. Indeed, in his book on New York’s upper class and their centuries-long tug-of-war with the city they dominate, historian Clifton Hood described the central dilemma of this particular elite thus: “The tension between the pressures of American economic dynamism and democratic culture, on the one hand, and the attractions of exclusivity and superiority, on the other”. Even if most Gilded Age and Progressive Era historians are much more likely to write about non-elite topics these days: Natives forced to live on reservations in the West, poverty in the cities, Jim Crow in the south, unions and labor problems throughout the country. —this song and dance between the new money and the old made it occur. viewers of the golden age in 2022 they’ll just have to wonder if that’s enough to keep them watching.

The audience avatar who enters this fantasy world as (improbably) naïve as a fawn, Marian has a kind heart and her outspokenness shows the closed nature of old New York. She can’t help but befriend Sylvia Chamberlain (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a society woman who has become an outcast due to the suspicious circumstances of her marriage. She also supports the Van Rhijns in including the Russells in society, much to her aunt Agnes’ distress. “I’m trying to stem the tide of barbarians that threaten to engulf us,” Agnes declares. “I feel like King Canute!” (Downton cross-reference siren!)

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However, none of these people seem very different from each other. city ​​center it also had to do with historical change and, in fact, he became obsessed with it; Willa Paskin joked in a 2014 review of season 4 of that show that, on the subject of “changing times”, Downton was “more dedicated to reaffirming his topic sentence than the most obedient ninth-grade composition student”. But there was a much more interesting change afoot at Downton, which was set from 1912 because that’s when technological change really started to disrupt everyday life in the industrialized world. There was the class stuff, sure, but there was so much more to chew on: cars, electricity, the Great War. Even if the show got boring on the subject, there were some there, there. In the golden age, the only stakes the show chooses to explore is an infinitesimal difference to me between rich people whose ancestors have been in Pennsylvania for a century and a half, rich people whose parents were from Ireland, and people who will soon be . who are lawyers. Who cares?

Baranski feels, in the five episodes released for review so far, pretty underused: buttoned down, meticulous, and directing all the competition that made us love her as The good wifeDiane Lockhart’s fierce litigator in much duller pursuits, such as policing her niece’s romantic ambitions and fighting with her sister, the more frivolous, kind and sentimental Ada, over her niece’s romantic ambitions. I think Agnes is supposed to be Cousin Violet on the show, the oldest representative of the order, and the one who jokes around. Marian announces her intention to go to Brooklyn to help a friend in trouble who might need “encouragement,” and Agnes replies, “I could too, if I lived in Brooklyn.” It’s a burn, sure, but it’s just a sad shadow of “What’s a ‘weekend’?”

Agnes is also secretly kind, just like Violet. As Lili Loofbourow pointed out at the beginning of city ​​centerThe third season of 2013, Violet was, in city ​​centerFellowes’s world, a contradictory force, shows Fellowes’s conviction that people bound by the old order may be superficially insufferable, but they also know better: “The woman who seems to most strongly oppose change is the person who welcomes it.” , and quietly incorporates the less orthodox elements in the family”. In Agnes’s case, there’s her kindness to Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), the black aspiring writer Marian meets on a train platform in the first episode, who ends up joining the Van Rhijn family in East 61.St. Street as Agnes’s secretary. “I know you took a chance on me and I appreciate it,” Peggy tells Agnes. Agnes replies, “Life has taught me one thing, Miss Scott: If you don’t want to be disappointed, only help those who help themselves.” It’s a conservative American point of view of lowercase c, and it’s what serves as truth in this show’s universe.

I do not mean to be exhausting by presenting a class-based critique of a program by a man who everyone knows is deeply conservative – in fact, a full-fledged Conservative member of the House of Lords – or of a network whose primary interest in rich white people are already well established. But my lack of interest in the show is just a bit of a political thing. It’s more than, beyond a normal, hot-blooded amount of interest in a developing love triangle between Marian, a handsome young lawyer (Thomas Cocquerel), and the perhaps slightly more handsome young scion of the Russell family (Harry Richardson), I really can’t bring myself to care about these people and their airless salon lives. My kingdom for a little horse manure on your highly polished shoes!




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