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‘The Gilded Age’: Bare Necessity Writing
This show is bored with itself, and it shows.
I recently watched Peacemaker on HBO Max. I wasn’t super into the idea, honestly, and I was ready to abandon the show the moment I was bored for more than one second. But then the opening credits hit:
And I was hooked. I will watch this show forever because of those opening credits. And I’m not alone.
As you might have already guessed, I’m here to discuss The Gilded Age and the fact that first impressions are crucial in a story. My streaming profile is absolutely littered with shows and films I made it 15 minutes into and abandoned. I’m more obsessive about novels, for some reason I can’t explain, so I tend to finish every book I crack open no matter how tedious, but that doesn’t mean the first chapter isn’t make or break. If you can’t convince me there’s something interesting in your story by the end of the first part, you’ve failed in one of the most fundamental jobs of a storyteller.
Now, no one has argued that Julian Fellowes is some sort of genius. Downton Abbey coasted along on the admittedly enjoyable fumes of Highclere Castle, Edwardian fashion, and the high-wattage charisma of its cast. The stories the show actually told weren’t exactly revolutionary (or, often enough, even that interesting) but hot damn everything and everyone looked fantastic. The pilot episode of Downton didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it was rendered with plenty of panache and did its job: It left the viewer wanting to find out what happened next.
The Gilded Age does not.
You may have been informed that The Gilded Age is pretty good! The reviews have been more or less positive. It is not, because it’s written impatiently, and written like an obligation. A look at the first few episodes tells you everything you need to know.
He had it once. I've got it now.
One challenge The Gilded Age struggles with is its distinct lack of Highclere Castle. Whereas Downton Abbey looked great and felt very real because of the on-location filming, the pilot episode of The Gilded Age feels very fake from the first scene to the last because it’s essentially one enormous CGI shot. Everything feels small as a result.
But the main problems with the episode have nothing to do with the technical challenges of recreating a city that has been literally physically recreated five or six times since the 1880s. The real problem is the writing, which is a prime example of what I call Bare Necessity Writing. Every scene is short and packed with wooden, utilitarian dialogue that simply gets the point across. Here, for example, is part of the dreary scene that establishes the poverty of one of our main characters:
Dull Handsome Lawyer: Miss Brook, the plain fact is, I've looked into the estate of the late Mr. Brook.
Miss Brook: The late General Brook.
Dull Handsome Lawyer: The late General Brook, and I cannot find any assets beyond the contents of his bank account.
Miss Brook: And the house.
Dull Handsome Lawyer: The house is rented, Miss Brook.
Miss Brook: I'm sure that's wrong.
Dull Handsome Lawyer: No, I'm afraid not.
Miss Brook: But my father always said... I see. So how much is left?
Dull Handsome Lawyer: I've paid the funeral charges and other outstanding accounts, and I will waive my own fee.
Miss Brook: There's no need.
Dull Handsome Lawyer: There is every need. You will have in your possession somewhere in the region of $30.
Miss Brook: You see, Mr. Raikes, none of this is what my father told me.
Dull Handsome Lawyer: So I gathered. What are you going to do?
Miss Brook: I'm not sure.
Dull Handsome Lawyer: You mentioned your father's sisters in New York.
Miss Brook: My aunts were not on good terms with my father, Mr. Raikes. They disliked him, and he disliked them, so they have played no part in my life.
Dull Handsome Lawyer: I would only ask you to consider your options, realistically.
Miss Brook: You mean beggars can't be choosers?
Dull Handsome Lawyer: Well, the rent is paid to the end of the month. Perhaps you will signal your intentions before that point is reached?
Miss Brook: Perhaps I will. Thank you.
Woof. “Perhaps I will” is such a damp fart of a button to end that scene on, but honestly there is absolutely nothing about this exchange of dialogue that is even vaguely interesting. All it does is convey the bare necessities of the story: Miss Brook is broke, she has aunts in New York who won’t be pleased to see her, and she’s got pluck. It’s incredibly dull (and the staging and direction don’t jazz it up much). You can almost feel everyone’s disinterest coming through in the scene.
The problem with writing like this is that it exists solely to convey information and it feels like it. As a writer I can tell you that it’s drudgery to write stuff like that, and as a viewer you know that it’s drudgery to watch it. And the first episode of The Gilded Age is crammed full of scenes like this, dialog that is spoken simply to get information into your head.
Presumably this is so they can get to the good stuff—so they can get the set up and basics out of the way and then have some fun! But of course the problem is that I have zero reason to go back to this story after the first episode lulled me into a coma.
The other problem with the show is a classic Julian Fellowes problem: Perfunctory plot elements. This was a problem in Downton Abbey, and it’s a problem here: Conflicts are introduced and then almost immediately resolved because the writers have zero interest in exploring them. Early on, the doughty cook in one of the wealthy houses is accosted by a legbreaker over a gambling debt, steals some silverware to pay her debt, and is caught by a fellow employee. Ooh, a juicy storyline to explore the wealth disparities of the Gilded Age!
No, as it turns out, about five minutes later the cook’s wealthy employer pays her debt and … nothing else happens. Whether or not you believe a wealthy old money member of New York society would tolerate a thieving cook for five seconds, the point is the show is riddled with these sorts of moments. It all just underscores how bored everyone is here. The writers can’t even muster the energy to explore the implications of their own plot twists.
Never the New
Bare Necessity Writing has a lot of (bad) uses, and it crops up a lot in The Gilded Age’s first episode in the service of ANNOUNCING THE THEMES. Bad writing gives itself away when the writer impatiently has their characters simply tell the reader what the story is about, which is just a millimeter shy of having them break the fourth wall and simply say “for expediency let’s assume I’ve done a lot of subtle work establishing my themes.”
When the plucky, broke Miss Brook arrives at her aunts’ home in New York City, her Aunt Agnes literally sits her down and slowly spells out the show’s over-arching theme and conflict in exactly the sort of way no human being has ever spoken in real life:
Aunt Agnes (struggling to stay conscious): Now, you need to know we only receive the old people in this house, not the new. Never the new.
In case that was too subtle for you, a few seconds later Aunt Agnes puts an enormous lampshade on this theme and dances around the room with it:
Aunt Agnes (calculating her salary for playing this part in her head): You belong to old New York, my dear, and don't let anyone tell you different. You are my niece, and you belong to old New York.
WOOF. You may have missed it, but there’s OLD New York and there’s NEW New York (or, yanno, old money and new money) and the two will never be friends! NEVER! Something tells me this will be the conflict that drives all the storytelling going forward. I’m not sure why I think that. Fellowes, you wily bastard, you have incepted me!
I can only imagine millions of people waking up on the floor of their living rooms after the pilot episode concluded and wondering how they could sue to get that hour of their lives back, but somehow the show has been renewed for a second season. Which is confusing, because once you’ve bored me to tears with your Bare Necessity Writing in the first episode why would I bother watching the second?
Look, writing is hard. For example, the first draft of this essay was just the single sentence “The Gilded Age: Not so good.”
Next week: Opening credits that do the work.
Do I now believe all thinky pieces about pop culture should open with a discussion of the Peacemaker opening credits? I do!
We need a word for that moment when you think “OK, I’ll finally watch this show” and when you click on it it says you watched 11 minutes six years ago and you have no memory whatsoever of it.
I mean this literally. No one has ever argued this.
Gosford Park, on the other hand, is terrific.
Increasingly, the idea of wealthy aristocrats going broke and having to sell their enormous castle no longer counts as “riveting storytelling.”
Either the television critic world is more corrupt than I imagined, or these people are getting shitfaced while watching … which is possible, considering the mental effort involved in caring about this ludicrous trash.
It doesn’t help that the homes, while grand, are also entirely interior. You start to feel out of breath watching this show because you’re worried about the ventilation of these homes in a largely unregulated housing market.
This is a technical term only used by elite thinkers.
Another technical term. Please, I’m a professional.
One of the most awful things about these shows is how everyone secretly has very progressive views, as if the whole of the population in the 19th century was simply afraid to voice their support of minorities.
You can sometimes tell how bored I am writing something by the number of references to Mumm-Ra, the Ever-Living I introduce into the work. If it’s more than zero, I’m not really into it.
AKA the costumes. I’ve never seen so many dinner jackets!
Considering employers in the year 2022 are trying to require folks to install spyware on their computers because they’re convinced that Time Theft is an actual thing, I do not believe this for one hot second.
Honestly, the show’s themes are a tad confusing, because the old money people are horrible snobs who contribute nothing to society and the upstart New People are robber barons doing their best to widen the gap between the incredibly wealthy and those doomed to a permanent underclass. It leaves you rooting for the scheming seductress maid because at least she sensibly hates everyone.
I’m lying, if that actually happened I would have given this show five stars and immediately begun work on my Gilded Age cosplay as the Theme.
Except of course I will, because The Duchess commands it and I do not wish to be cursed.