Monday, January 24, 2022

REVIEW: 'The Gilded Age' - Marion and Bertha Move Into the Old Society With Different Expectations in 'Never the New'

HBO's The Gilded Age - Episode 1.01 "Never the New"

In 1882, Marian arrives at the home of her "old money" aunts Agnes and Ada, whose new neighbors vie to break into New York high society.

"Never the New" was written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Michael Engler

Julian Fellows has been developing The Gilded Age as his follow-up series to the award-winning drama Downton Abbey for years. It was initially ordered by NBC in January 2018 and was talked about for years before that. After a move to premium cable and pandemic production delays, it has finally premiered in January 2022. It doesn't initially come across as Fellowes straying from what he has known and written before. In this case, the stories of the opulent upstairs and the people who work for them downstairs are set in America. It certainly affords him the opportunity to work with an incredibly talented ensemble of actors - plenty of whom were pulled from Broadway when shows were shut down for an extended period. But can the show exist as something exciting and new? That still somewhat remains the question after this premiere. It certainly has a vision of a time period it wants to display and a story it chooses to engage with. It can still feel overly familiar to an audience known of Fellows' prior work. Here, old and new money clash during the Gilded Age - the time period from the end of the Civil War to the start of the 20th century. As many characters are quick and frequent to point out, they exist in a changing world. Some of that change is being developed quickly as a result of their business prowess. That is altering the physical environment around them. The Russell's are the ones building something new. They aren't doing things the traditional way of business. They are seeking new perspectives and being vicious with what they want. They are concise and productive in their methods. However, Bertha wants to be accepted as part of the old guard. She knows their society. She wants to belong. And yet, the first thing Agnes van Rhijn tells her niece, Marion, when she moves in is that new will never be brought into her house. This is a world full of people beholden to rigid standards and ideologies. It's simply viewed as progressive that Agnes would hire Peggy to serve as her secretary. Even then, it's something she always has to justify by pointing out the quality of her work despite the color of her skin. Peggy does serve a perspective that could shake up this environment. She knows how to maneuver through it. However, she is returning home to New York with Marian. She doesn't seek to return to her family and their expectations of what her life should be. She dreams of a life as a successful writer. She has that passion. Marion is jealous of that. She is mostly appreciative that Peggy helps her navigate the world without too much cost. Marion isn't truly inconvenienced even though her late father left her with nothing. That's the privilege she comes from. But she and Peggy quickly become friends. They are positioned as equals. The show is certainly aware of the racial dynamics at play. Even the staff have prejudices about Peggy joining them. They don't view her as deserving of equal standing. But it's all mostly a way to present a clash between conservative and progressive ideologies. The narrative is fundamentally about two women who are new to the world of old money. Bertha wants to be accepted as one of them while Marion seeks to challenge what has been the norm for a long time. Others are content with the way the world largely is. But again, the world is changing. That pronouncement comes over and over again. It's still a society where Marion and Gladys are expected to make their debuts and find suitors for marriage sooner than later. It's all about a quest for power and who can accumulate it. The new money is building up the future. The old money represents the past. That is spelled out as well. That ensures the dialogue is heavy handed with the overall ambitions and scope of the narrative. It's problematic while mostly just throwing these characters together with twists to potentially help the audience be intrigued by what's to come of them. That's how it feels when Agnes' son Oscar is revealed to be in a gay romance. That's the show mostly playing to the time it is airing in instead of the period it is set within. It's treated as a twist that is on the periphery. It's not the unique vantage point to offer drama inherently tragic because of the rigid confines of the world. That's instead played straight as Bertha opens her home to the upper class only to largely be rejected by the people she wants to impress. She doesn't need them. And so, this pursuit needs to be justified a little more in order to explain why the audience should care about this particular society. That presents a challenge. But the actors do sell everything that is being done. That makes it all watchable at least.