Newport This Week

Guilty Pleasure ‘The Gilded Age’ is Still Must-See TV

Getting prominent storylines in the second season of “The Gilded Age” are, left to right, Blake Ritson, Louisa Jacobson, Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski. (Photo courtesy HBO)

Getting prominent storylines in the second season of “The Gilded Age” are, from left to right, Blake Ritson, Louisa Jacobson, Cynthia Nixon, and Christine Baranski. (Photo courtesy HBO)

With season two of HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” creator and head writer Julian Fellowes managed the considerable feat of turning his mostly low-stakes period drama with predicable plots into glitzy must-see TV.

Of course, it helped that “The Gilded Age” boasted opulent and often over-the-top outfits and millinery, as well as impeccable production design, owing in large part to scenes shot in Newport’s historic mansions. The sumptuous settings in, among other mansions, Marble House’s ballrooms and bedrooms and the Elm’s kitchen grounded the characters above and below stairs in place and time.

Fellowes, as he did with “Downton Abbey,” has found a winning formula that blends PG-rated, lightweight interpersonal dynamics with class conflicts, all aided considerably by assembling a cast of actors so talented they could recite a takeout menu and make it sound like Shakespeare.

Season two started slowly but built steadily, ending even stronger than the first season. Fellowes deserves credit for turning a standoff between Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) and Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) over opera boxes, of all things, into a major plot. The brouhaha turned more devilishly sinister with the reappearance of Bertha’s evil ex-maid Turner (Kelley Curran), who managed to leap into the aristocracy by marrying a wealthy elder.

Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications.

Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications.

Class conflict also figured into the minor below-stairs plot line about Russell family valet Watson (Michael Cerveris), whose past as a banker who fell into ruin was exposed but ended with a happy reconciliation with his well-to-do daughter.

Across the Upper East Side street, at the van Rhijn household, footman Jack Treacher (Ben Ahlers) invented an alarm clock device and, with the financial support of fellow servants and even employer Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), who parted with $5, applied for a patent. It was rejected, but once he was introduced to the right people, it’s clear that the future looks bright for the scrappy Jack.

One of the strongest aspects of this season is that Marian (Louisa Jacobson) found her spark and spunk. Her ill-fated romantic exploits with cad Tom Raikes grew tiresome in season one, but this season, Marian stood up to formidable Aunt Agnes. advocated for Aunt Ada’s autumnal passion and got a job as an art teacher, much to Agnes’s chagrin.

Blindsided by the tacky public marriage proposal from suitor Dashiell Montgomery (David Furr), Marian was clearly meant for a deeper connection with Larry Russell (Harry Richardson), the handsome, Harvard-educated architect who was forced by meddling mom Bertha to end his May-December relationship with the underdeveloped character of Newport widow Susan Blane (Laura Benanti).

Larry got to display his modern bona fides in other ways, especially in the episode where he boldly acknowledges Brooklyn Bridge engineer Emily Roebling, one of the series’ real historical figures, who is forced, because of sexism, to hide her achievements.

Marian’s friend, the rising journalist Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), got the season’s most relevant storyline with the highest stakes. Peggy and her New York Globe editor, Sullivan Jones (T. Thomas Fortune), traveled south to report on Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and narrowly escaped lynching by a racist mob. Hiding in a barn in fear for their lives, the pair shared an intimate kiss despite the fact that Jones is married.

It was heartening to finally see Baranski get the chance to deliver more than eyerolls and droll quips, although no one does that better. Her sarcasm when her sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) served clam chowder to a Massachusetts transplant, the Reverend Matthew Forte (Robert Sean Leonard), was a season highlight.

So staunch was Agnes’s opposition to Ada’s happiness that it was obviously destined to fail. But who knew it would fail in such grand a fashion, with Agnes appearing in silhouette to make an unannounced, spectacular, Bette Davis-style entrance into a church? Sadly, Rev. Forte’s out-of-the-blue back pain turned out not to be the result of honeymoon hijinks. In record time, he was on his deathbed. The sudden melodrama provided Baranski and Nixon the chance to show off their sisterly devotion and their acting chops.

Drama at the van Rhijn household continued with the marriage pursuits of Agnes’s gay son and easy-going Oscar (Blake Ritson), who set his sights on wealthy Maud Beaton (Nicole Brydon Bloom). The panicked Oscar realized that Maud was not visiting her aunt in Newport but had vanished after an elaborate swindle. One had to wonder what was worse for Oscar—that humiliation or telling his mother that he lost the family fortune and hearing her terse retort, “Get it back!”

Those three words alone are enough to make one eager for season three.

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