When You’re Too Young to Watch Period Dramas Like ‘The Gilded Age’

If you loved ‘Downton Abbey,’ get the cucumber sandwiches out for HBO’s ‘The Gilded Age.’ But there’s much more fun to be had in Amazon Prime’s ‘As We See It’

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Christine Baranski as Agnes van Rhijn in HBO's "The Gilded Age." Queen of the withering put-down.
Christine Baranski as Agnes van Rhijn in HBO's "The Gilded Age." Queen of the withering put-down.
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

It was hard not to laugh at the news that Hamas is to make its own version of “Fauda.”

Look, if any Israeli series deserves a stinging response from the Palestinians, it’s this one – with its “Don’t the Russians love their children too?” vibe about the “enemy,” right up to the point where Doron Kavillio’s wrecking-ball-on-legs takes out terrorists in a blaze of glory and machine-gun fire.

But then I saw the title of the upcoming series: “Fist of the Free,” which suggests the Islamist group is searching for Gaza’s answer to Leni Riefenstahl rather than a genuine riposte to “Fauda” and its newly minted creators Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff.

The series is apparently going to be released in April and I genuinely can’t wait to see it, especially its portrayal of the Israeli characters. If it turns out to be a hit – and may I just salute in advance any Gazan TV critic who dares offer anything but fulsome praise – I have a few other TV ideas for Hamas’ artistic production team (and yes, that is a thing)…

On the set of the Hamas-funded Palestinian thriller "Fist of the Free." Yes, that is a picture of Theodor Herzl hanging on the wall.

‘How I Met Your Fatah’
A sitcom about the early days of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its legendary leader Yasser Arafat.

‘The Newsroom’
The daily struggles of a foreign media outfit working to get news out of Gaza City. Look out for the special episode in which the Israeli army gives the team 30 minutes to evacuate their building before it’s destroyed because the maintenance guy’s cousin might be in Hamas.

‘Billions’
An intrepid Hamas security officer follows the money when suitcases packed with dollars arrive from Qatar for the civil servants, and he is shocked – shocked – to discover where some of it ends up.

‘Queer Eye’
A group of religious fanatics go around Gaza looking for LGBTQ folks, aiming to pray away the gay – each episode ending with the horrific “rooftop challenge.”

‘Friends’
A group of Palestinians and Israelis say to hell with war and decide to get along, while one of them sings “Smelly Khat.” All goes well until someone questions the origins of hummus. This sci-fi series is set in the year 2124.

And now for something completely different…

A scene from Julian Fellowes' "The Gilded Age."

HBO’s ‘The Gilded Age’

Being the first high-profile period drama to follow “Bridgerton” is somewhat akin to being the next comedian on stage after Richard Pryor: Your act can’t help but feel staid by comparison. Actually, perhaps it’s more like being an 80-year-old in an Apple Store, pushing your walker while everyone whizzes past on skateboards and scooters, fueled by the very essence of youth.

The genius of “Bridgerton” was that it basically stole a page from Sofia Coppola’s book and turned the period drama into a Taylor Swift music video with orgasms – which turned out to be very much what Netflix viewers were looking for. (Part of me is tickled by the fact that the series was a top 10 hit in every single Netflix market except one – and congratulations if you guessed “Japan” there.) It also turned Regé-Jean Page into an overnight sensation, which is not what normally happens with anything set in 19th-century England unless your name is Keira, Helena or Isambard.

Someone had to be the next hansom cab off the rank, though, and that show is HBO’s “The Gilded Age.” You could be forgiven for thinking I had the wrong channel, for this Julian Fellowes drama is very much from the world of PBS – which is where his “Downton Abbey” series aired for 12 years in America.

I couldn’t abide “Downton Abbey” and its depiction of the English aristocracy and its scurrying minions. But I loved Fellowes’ script for Robert Altman’s 2001 mini-masterpiece “Gosford Park” and found him an incredibly engaging character when I heard him talk at a Q&A for his debut feature, “Separate Lies,” back in 2005. You will not be surprised to learn that he is very posh.

The first thing I should say in favor of his long-gestating new show is that I didn’t want to start a class riot or kick in the television screen while watching it. There may not be much new here, but it’s all slickly told by some great actors clearly relishing the chance to deliver bons mots and put-downs as if they were auditioning for Oscar Wilde on Broadway.

Top of that list are Christine “The Good Fight” Baranski and Carrie “The Leftovers” Coon as powerhouse women Agnes van Rhijn and Bertha Russell, respectively, set up as two sides of a gleaming new coin in 1882 New York. This is old money versus new money, the establishment versus the ostentatious newcomer, tradition versus change.

Both women have inherited their money through marriage, but van Rhijn is the gatekeeper trying to “hold back the tide of vulgarism that threatens to engulf us” – adding, in a line that perhaps reflects writer Fellowes’ Englishness, “I feel like King Canute.”

Baranski lands her most withering lines with perfection, as she tutors her new-in-town niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson) in the ways of the world (“Life has taught me one thing: If you don’t want to be disappointed, only help those who help themselves”).

“The Gilded Age” is at its most entertaining whenever she’s passing judgment on someone, often while snooping at a twitching curtain next to spinster sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon, who injects some welcome warmth).

The show is at its most interesting, though, whenever Coon is on the screen, concocting her ambitious plans to take snooty New York society by storm. “I don’t want to come a long way. I want to go all the way,” she snarls at husband George (Morgan Spector), a successful businessman bankrolling their freshly constructed Upper East Side mansion and dreams.

Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell in HBO's period drama "The Gilded Age." The show is at its most interesting whenever she's on the screen.

What you really want is for things to get ugly here as the Russells refuse to play by the old-money rules, but there’s a politeness to everything that means the show never draws blood. This is more “I drink your tea in exquisite china” than “I drink your milkshake” – to quote from that other period drama about new money and opportunity, “There Will Be Blood.”

That’s especially true with the younger characters, who are a particularly bland bunch. I was more interested in trying to spot the physical similarities between Louisa Jacobson and her mother Meryl Streep, or being spooked by the fact that Taissa Farmiga, who plays the Russells’ young daughter, is fellow actress Vera Farmiga’s sister despite being 21 years younger.

“The Gilded Age” is a treat for the eyes, for sure, with its lavish costumes and settings, and recreations of 1880s New York (complete with grazing sheep on Central Park). But there’s a reason these folks are called the chattering classes. The biggest shock came when I discovered that 12 stunt performers worked on the series, because the most visually dramatic event in the first few episodes is a breakfast tray being flung across a room.

Still, if you like your dramas peopled by women in corsets, men in hats, and the working classes knowing their place, you’ll love this – which is “Downton” on an even grander scale, but with the same needless obsession for giving the butlers, maids et al their own screentime and (very) mini-dramas too.

Last week, I wrote about being too old to watch teen dramas like “Euphoria.” Well, this week, I feel too young to watch shows like “The Gilded Age.”

I’ll definitely recommend the show to my mom and her friends, but for now my only interest is in seeing if, like with “Downton,” the choice of the dog’s name proves unfortunate. The creators seem to have made a safer choice than “Isis” here, but if “Pumpkin” does become the unlikely name of a terror group, I can only assume it will be something to do with Starbucks – and I may be in it.

Amazon Prime’s ‘As We See It’

One day we should stand up and reveal all the shows we’re ashamed to say we’ve never seen. I’ve got loads of them, and toward the top of the list is “Friday Night Lights” – which sounds like the kind of quintessential slice of Americana you need to watch before they grant you a green card these days. Having just watched and loved “As We See it,” the latest show by its showrunner Jason Katims, all five seasons are now on my watch list for this year.

“As We See It” is a remake of the award-winning Israeli comedy-drama “On the Spectrum” (still available on Yes English and on HBO Max in the U.S.). It’s a sensitive, touching and unashamedly heartwarming comedy-drama about three 25-year-old autistic roommates, but successfully avoids any hint of mawkishness or sentimentality.

The characters of Violet, Harrison and Jack are all played by actors who identify as being on the spectrum themselves, and the project is clearly close to Katims’ heart as he has a 25-year-old autistic son. I tell you this so you don’t think you’re about to suffer some “Rain Man” shtick in which a Tom Cruise/Sean Penn-type is eyeing lots of shiny awards: This show is as authentic as they come.

In spirit it’s a lot like the lovely British comedy-drama “The A Word” (itself a remake of an Israeli show, “Yellow Peppers”), and I can’t remember the last time I saw something that managed to make me laugh and cry quite so much simultaneously except perhaps my bank account.

Our spectrum-spanning protagonists are Arby’s-working Violet (Sue Ann Pien, who may be 42 in real life but is totally convincing as a 25-year-old here), who just wants to go on a date and “be normal”; Harrison (Albert Rutecki), who puts his aversion to going outdoors down to “strange noises, dogs, sunlight – lots of reasons”; and Jack (Rick Glassman), who gets perhaps the most stereotypical/recognizable role as the very straight-talking, permanently wired computer genius.

These three are worth the price of admission alone, but the show also gives us Violet’s caring-but-stressed brother Van (Chris Pang); the welcome return into my life of Joe Mantegna as Jack’s aging dad; and – my favorite – Sosie Bacon as the trio’s caregiver, Mandy.

I know what you’re thinking. Sosie Bacon? Is she related to that famous film star. Well, no, she is not related to Babe, but she is Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick’s daughter. And while this is not her first time at the rodeo (she’s previously appeared in “13 Reasons Why” and “Mare of Easttown”), this is her biggest role to date.

She’s brilliant as the dedicated worker with the biggest of hearts, but for those of us who grew up watching her dad in “Footloose” some 40 years ago, it’s almost as depressing a sign of aging as the news that Mike Leigh’s son, Leo, is poised to make his directorial debut.

Sosie Bacon as caregiver Mandy in "As We See It." Spot the family resemblance?

If there’s a more touching comedy-drama than “As We See It” in 2022, complete with its kosher Bacon, we’re going to be in for a vintage year of television. That’s how I see it, anyway.

“The Gilded Age” is on Yes and Hot VOD, and Cellcom tv, from Monday, and also Hot HBO on Mondays and Yes Drama from February 20. It’s on HBO on Sundays in America and thereafter on HBO Max. All eight episodes of “As We See It” are available on Amazon Prime now, so what are you waiting for?

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