Julian Fellowes drastically misreads American history
In novels by Edith Wharton and Henry James, vivid descriptions of gestures, facial expressions, clothing and décor let the reader know exactly how things worked during the gilded age. The characters themselves never explained who was who in the pecking order. You just knew.
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The HBO series “The Gilded Age” has no time for any such subtleties. The characters that inhabit this strangely amateurish and stagey television series are only too happy to explain to us, the viewers, exactly who they are, what they want, what time period they are in, and where they are located on the societal food chain. There are literally lines like “We only receive the old people in this house. Not the new. Never the new” and “I want to get out of this corset”
There is a lot of eye acting in The Gilded Age. When someone delivers a line like “You’re a New Yorker now! We both are! And for a New Yorker, anything is possible!” Cynthia Nixon’s eyes widen and glisten and both her eyebrows head straight up towards the heavens. She means it, goddamit. When someone delivers bad news, like when Marion Brook’s family’s hunky estate lawyer informs her that her late father’s estate is only worth $30, his eyes gaze downward and to the side. His head tilts sympathetically. When a character is concerned–like when a black woman she’s never met before, enters her home–her eyebrows furrow. There are also a lot of knowing nods between characters. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a hat tip. Pepperidge Farm remembers. And don’t you forget it.
At one point, my closed captioning reads “[plucky orchestral music]”. Yep. Lots of that.
Race as an issue is interrogated – sort of – by introducing Peggy Scott, a black female character who seemed to be created in a writers’ room full of white writers who just read White Fragility and are trying to insert 21stcentury woke values into the plotline lest they be dragged on Twitter. Peggy is well dressed and fresh faced and literate. No one actually comes out and calls her “articulate” (because Twitter) but everyone is very impressed with Peggy’s accomplishments and ambition. All the white characters treat her warmly and respectfully. It’s as if the writers are worried that any racism that these characters direct at Peggy would reflect poorly on the writers, not the characters, so everyone is super nice.
But there are some moments in which The Gilded Age shows that Peggy has to deal with racism. She has to board the train last and can’t sit in first class. Occasionally–when Peggy is out of earshot–someone will make a mildly derogatory remark about black people in general and how we should fear them, but then the show immediately counters these remarks by cheerful but firm resistance and credulousness by the other white people who urge everyone to “give her a chance”. We first meet Peggy at a Pennsylvania train station when she comes to Marion’s aid. Someone steals Marion’s purse, and Peggy lends her train fare so she can get to New York. Marion is not a white savior. Peggy is the savior. See what they just did? She also has really good penmanship.
One could forgive all this if the costumes and scenery–having failed to reflect the period accurately–were luscious and said something with style about this particular moment in history and who these people were. But there really isn’t anything distinctive about what any of the characters wear. The “old people” and the “new people” (and the “black people”) are simply wearing generic “period” costumes that all look like brand new spotless upholstery. Even after the provincial Marion goes to her old monied aunt’s dressmaker, there’s barely any difference in the way she dresses. The sets and exterior shots look more like the background of an advertisement for a mass market perfume than a premium television series. The CGI used to depict “old New York” is really sloppy.
If Gilded Age creator Julian Fellowes were to remake the 1986 gay porn classic The Pizza Boy: He Delivers, there would be a lot of dialogue like this: “Yes, I have brought a pizza, that’s why you summoned me. But now that I’m in your home, I was thinking that since we are both handsome and physically fit, we should have penetrative sex and the pleasure I derive from it will make payment for this pizza unnecessary. However, before we begin, I’m going to put on this condom. You see, it’s 1986 and right now a fatal disease for which there is no cure or sufficient treatment is ravaging the gay community. Madonna is a promising young pop star taking the world by storm right now! Ronald Reagan is our president!”