HBO’s The Gilded Age premiered in early 2022 in a prime Emmy-friendly January window. Certainly, on paper, everything looked pointed toward another prestige success. Hailing from the creator/writer of the massively successful Downton Abbey, The Gilded Age looked to bring a similar, high-class soap experience to New York City just before the turn of the 20th century. But a strange thing happened along the way.
Audiences definitely tuned in as each new episode surpassed the previous episode’s ratings, but critics were lukewarm on the series and the Television Academy nearly completely ignored the series. It would win its only Emmy nomination — the exquisite production design by Bob Shaw. It should have been nominated for at least four more awards for its main title theme, main title design, costumes, and for Carrie Coon’s fantastic lead performance. Alas. For all its faults, I was still very much a fan of The Gilded Age‘s first season. It’s an era of American history with which I’m endlessly fascinated, and even if the writing wasn’t always great, the series offered many fine moments, particularly the season finale’s lavish debutante ball.
So, season two returns with its cast unable to support the series in its broadly improved second season. That’s a shame, too, because the cast feels far more comfortable in their roles. They’re given more accessible, substantial material, and they race with it. Particularly Louisa Jacobson who, in her television debut, was viciously targeted by critics for her performance thanks to her lineage (she’s one of Meryl Streep’s daughters). Of course, Christine Baranski, Carrie Coon, Denée Benton, and more all return in top form, wringing fun performances out of a social era characterized by painful restraint. The cast is also blessed by two strong performances from newcomers Laura Benanti and Robert Sean Leonard, acting pros who know how to spin a regrettable line of dialogue or two as if it were Shakespeare. Unfortunately, their presence within the series remains short-lived.
One of my major complaints about Julian Fellowes’ (Downton Abbey) work remains his vaguely ADHD-level plotting. As with Downton Abbey before it, The Gilded Age never lingers too long on a major subplot or potentially disastrous turn of events. Everything pretty much wraps itself up within an episode or three. This season, Fellowes explores the Newport social scene, the creation and social controversy of the Metropolitan Opera House, the Tuskegee School in Alabama, race relations in the North and South, America’s continued fascination with middling British royalty, the early days of labor strikes within an increasingly industrial America, and more. Gone are subplots entirely dedicated to the disappearance of Pumpkin, Ada Brook’s (Cynthia Nixon) beloved dog. Even the servants have more substantial roles within the narrative as Fellowes slowly pushes them out of the kitchen and into roles within the larger society. Fellowes’ writing even feels stronger this time around. A particularly well written sequence in the season two finale points to a potentially self-inflicted downfall for a beloved character. It’s not Succession, of course, but it’s nice to see Fellowes elevating his fascination with period history with a Faustian bargain here and there.
Given all of that, I suspect that audiences will find The Gilded Age season two a far more agreeable experience. And, for me, the season offers a more consistent, uniform level of quality. There aren’t sequences that dazzled me quite as much as the first season finale, but I can forgive that as the sophomore season overall points to the creative team listening to previous complaints and working overtime to address them. Of course, there will be those who will refuse to connect to the material, which is fine, but not everything is engineered for all viewers.
Those who liked season one will find season two a far smoother experience. Whether or not that translates to more Emmy nominations in 2024 remains to be seen, although I suspect the writers/actors strike will help that along quite nicely.
The Gilded Age season two premieres Sunday, October 29, on HBO and Max.