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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘The Gilded Age’ Season 2 review: The house of dearth

By Nina Metz Chicago Tribune

The setting for HBO’s “The Gilded Age” is 1880s New York, nearly half a century before zippers would appear on garments. And yet there they are, running up the backs of women’s gowns in Season 2, suggesting the show’s budget is no match for the illusion it so desperately hopes to peddle.

You know it’s bad when a series preoccupied with opulence can’t even deliver when it comes to the costumes.

Let’s look at it another way. Last week, the New York Times reported about parking lots where full-time workers live out of their cars because they earn too little to afford rent, but too much to receive government assistance. This isn’t a phenomenon that just happens, but one orchestrated by those in power. Lest anyone forget, back in July when TV and film writers were striking, here’s how one anonymous studio exec described the corporate endgame: Let things drag on “until union members start losing their apartments and start losing their houses.”

“When someone has five homes and someone else is starving, then the first man has something that belongs to the second man.” That’s a sentiment attributed to the late-19th century activist Mary Elizabeth Lease, who would probably have some thoughts about how things are going almost 150 years later.

Meanwhile, Hollywood keeps churning out more stories about the rich.

Julian Fellowes is chief among the culprits. His follow up to “Downton Abbey,” the HBO series wields its title as an endorsement rather than the critique Mark Twain originally intended: A metaphorical “you gotta be kidding me” about the era’s veneer of elegance and class, which could never conceal the tarnish of robber baron corruption underneath.

Have you noticed that despite an increase in union organizing and strikes, none have made it into the storylines on our screens? Well, “The Gilded Age” attempts to rectify that with the addition of some labor headaches for the railroad magnate played by Morgan Spector. It’s handled so clumsily I wish they hadn’t bothered. But there’s a moment when a group of industrialists gather around a boardroom table to harrumph about demands for workplace safety and fair wages and if you squint, you might just wonder if this is what it’s looked and sounded like these past few months whenever studio heads have met in private to discuss the Hollywood strikes.

Carrie Coon, an actor too talented for whatever hapless plotting “The Gilded Age” is up to, is stuck with the thankless task of playing Spector’s wife. Her primary concern this season is an “opera battle,” which sounds more interesting than it is, but it’s a storyline that seems loosely based on that of Alva Vanderbilt, who did indeed successfully break into high society despite the odds, and then backed the founding of a new – and rival – opera house in New York. She represents new money. Sticking to old money norms is the haughty widow across the street, played by Christine Baranski, who sees her tightly controlled existence thrown into disarray when her sister, Cynthia Nixon’s spinster, gets a love interest and, separately, the family fortune is at risk of going up in smoke thanks to her son’s hubris. If the show gets one thing right, it’s that wealth does not confer intelligence.

Maybe the series wouldn’t leave me so cranky if it weren’t so dull and overscored, with quivering strings and heralding horns. Everything is about desire, absent interiority or human complexity. Say what you will about “Succession” (and I’ve said plenty, only some of it complimentary) but at least it understood how to convey searing humor and drama.

Edith Wharton was the top author of her era to capture the excesses of the Gilded Age. She didn’t write about holding power to account, either. So why do Fellowes’ efforts feel so empty when Wharton’s books are so rich by comparison? Maybe because she was an insider writing about a world she understood. I went back and read some of her works, including “The Custom of the Country,” and it’s not about the mannered dialogue so much as her descriptions in between that function as a commentary of sorts, detailing how her characters respond from one moment to the next, or simply carry themselves through the world. That’s absent in the HBO series and it’s all the flatter for it.

The show’s one narrative of substance belongs to that of the journalist/personal secretary played by Denée Benton, offering a window into the lives of the Black middle class during this time period. It’s notable that her character shoulders the weight of social issues, whereas everyone else gets to indulge in the frippery of courtships and who got invited where. Here’s an idea: Greenlight a series about the real-life Ida B. Wells instead.

Meanwhile, PBS is making available its two-hour 2018 “American Experience” episode also titled “The Gilded Age.” It streams for free on the American Experience YouTube channel as well as its website and it serves as a brisk antidote to the “rich people are great” propaganda from which Fellowes is unwilling to disengage.

“We can’t back down or we’ll lose everything we’ve spent our lives building!” says one of the wealthy so-and-so’s in the HBO series. Too bad they couldn’t build a better show.

History is more interesting than this. People are more interesting than this.