Julian Fellowes did years of research for his New York drama The Gilded Age. It’s a shame he didn’t spend more time on the dialogue
Let’s get one thing straight, shall we? The Gilded Age is not the new Downton Abbey. If it was, it would have remembered to include some actual jokes.
A long-time passion project for Downton’s esteemed creator, Julian Fellowes, The Gilded Age (Sky Atlantic/Now) was initially conceived as something of a US spin-off/prequel to ITV’s global period smash.
Time passed and things changed. Fellowes then spent ages researching the heck out of New York City’s late-19th century boom years; a period of industrial and economic growth that ushered in a new set of problems for both the filthy rich and the terribly poor. His long-awaited series shines a light on the former (God bless them) and the unbearable tragedy that occurred when the old money brigade was forced to contend and compete with the new dollar posse.
Listen, as far as I can tell, Fellowes’ studies have paid off. But it’s one thing to craft a taut, educational and historically accurate piece — it’s another entirely to place engaging, charismatic characters at its centre.
The year is 1882 and penniless orphan Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) has arrived in NYC, moving in with her posh, privileged and dreadfully boring aunts, Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon).
Agnes and Ada are old money stock.
One of them is a bit of a grump; the other is almost always in a good mood. Agnes isn’t best pleased that Marian’s late Union general father left them nothing in his will. But Marian is family, and as long as she doesn’t mess around with the super-rich neighbours across the street — railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his party-planning wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) — everything will be grand. Obviously, Marian does exactly that.
Nobody much likes George and Bertha. They represent change, and they are literally trying to buy their way into New York’s high society. Will it work? Not immediately. But we suspect a war is on the horizon, and both Bertha and Agnes have that look in their eyes that tells us it’s only a matter of a time before they hurl gold coins at one another’s heads.
Meanwhile, in a subplot that might actually go somewhere, Marian befriends an African-American writer named Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), whom Agnes hires as an assistant. In another compelling twist, it turns out that Agnes’s son, Oscar (Blake Ritson), is secretly gay, which will no doubt lead to all sorts of scandal down the line.
Oh, and this time, there are two sets of ‘downstairs’ staff. Yippee.
There are lots of issues with this stagey and stilted offering — chief among them is Fellowes’ yawn-inducing dialogue. The Gilded Age is Downton Abbey’s poorer American cousin; a witless, fumbling hodgepodge of fancy frocks and blunt one-liners that struggles to take off. If you are going to ‘treat’ audiences to a massive, feature-length opener, you had better make sure that there is at least some magic on the screen.
Sadly, this show, with its cardboard characters, out-of-the-box costumes and obvious movie-set streets is all over the place. And don’t get me started on the bogus CGI architecture.
Here we have a drama in which nobody ever stops talking. And yet few of them say anything of interest.
Fellowes has clearly positioned the fabulous Christine Baranski as his new Maggie Smith, and that’s fine — but he forgot to give her the sort of sharp and sensational put-downs that made Downton’s dear-old dowager such a hit. Worse still, the usually reliable Carrie Coon is painfully miscast as Agnes’s spicy rival, and the only memorable feature that Morgan Spector brings to the table is his magnificently groomed beard. I really, really wanted to like The Gilded Age — but I’m afraid it’s dead on arrival.
Speaking of which, The Afterparty (Apple TV+) kicked off this week. Christopher Miller’s outrageously unfunny comedy is, in fact, a bit of a murder mystery.
Long story short, it all takes place at a swanky high school reunion afterparty where one of the lads (Dave Franco’s Xavier) ends up brown bread on the beach. In comes Tiffany Haddish’s Detective Danner to investigate the crime.
It’s down to Danner (the salty Poirot of the piece) to interview the guests one by one and to determine which of them was responsible for Xavier’s grisly demise. We then experience the night from different vantage points and, hey, that sounds fun, right? Yes. Yes, it does.
That’s why it’s so disappointing to discover that Miller — one of the brains behind The Lego Movie (awesome) and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (likewise) — has delivered such a dud. Yep, The Afterparty squanders the talents of its cast with a broad, derivative and annoyingly obnoxious screenplay. It’s Knives Out for beginners, and I won’t be sticking with it.
A steadier, more accomplished offering is The Responder (BBC One), in which Martin Freeman portrays Chris Carson, an urgent response police officer who has seen better weeks. Poor Chris is falling apart.
His home life is a mess, he has spent far too long working nights in Liverpool, he treats civilians like garbage and his mental health is in an awful state.
Therapy isn’t working, and things go from bad to worse for our unstable copper after he decides to help out a young homeless addict who stole cocaine from a ruthless drug dealer (Ian Hart, terrifying in every scene).
Written by former police officer Tony Schumacher, this nervy, five-part mini-series hangs its hat on a magnificent, powerhouse performance from Freeman, sporting a shaved head, beard, bags under his eyes and a spot-on Scouse accent.
But it also arms itself with a compelling plot, a pitch-black sense of humour and a wonderful cast of supporting players. The best new crime drama on telly? Probably.