The Gilded Age series 2 — lavish costume drama returns with light entertainment


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I’m not saying that The Gilded Age is a show about trifling matters, but the first episodes of its second season largely revolve around a dispute about which opera venue New York’s high society should attend. Having been turned down for a box at the exclusive Academy of Music, assertive arriviste Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) decides to lead a campaign to turn the upstart Met into the place to see and be seen. “You don’t even like opera,” notes her industrialist husband George (Morgan Spector), missing the point entirely.

As far as opera goes, Julian Fellowes’s 1880s-set stateside costume drama is on the soapy end of the scale. Where one might have hoped that the show would develop into a wry Whartonian send-up of elite Manhattanites, the HBO original (airing on Sky Atlantic in the UK) seems content to provide light, lavish entertainment.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism. For all the grand settings, strictly codified conventions and snobbery, there’s something cosy about entering a world of balmy tennis meets and decadent soirées where petty scandals and idle gossip pass for news and mansions are made out of molehills.

As the Russells unveil their new seaside estate in Newport, Rhode Island, their neighbour on Fifth Avenue, Agnes van Rhijn (a terrifically cutting Christine Baranski), reels from the revelation that her niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson) is debasing herself by teaching painting instead of finding a suitable suitor. Her son Oscar (Blake Ritson), meanwhile, continues his quest to land a reputable wife to help disguise his homosexuality.

The latter subplot is one of a handful in which The Gilded Age pulls its gaze from its navel to consider more serious social matters. But issues of sexuality, race and grief — explored through Marion’s African American friend Peggy (Denée Benton) — and union rights (which trouble George Russell) are too substantial to be dropped in as parenthetical tangents to the triviality that otherwise dominates. These timely concerns end up seeming like little more than progressive gilding.


On Sky Atlantic Monday at 9pm. New episodes air weekly and are available to stream on NOW. On HBO and Max in the US

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