Zanna and Greg reach a surprising consensus regarding formulae.
I'm rarely interested in film or television that's set earlier than the 20th century, which I know is an asinine statement. Perhaps it's because I find the affected way the actors speak to be false and distracting, or because I'm constantly questioning the plausibility of every piece of dialogue or plot point. We can't know with much certainty how people spoke before recorded sound was commonplace but good storytelling draws you into a situation or world that doesn't interest you at all and that's what The Gilded Age does so brilliantly.
After watching the premiere, not only was I not concerned with the accuracy of the actors' accents, I affected the accent myself for the rest of the evening. Poor Greg, I think that's how I speak now, or at least until we complete the series.
The show has been an impossibly long time in the making. Creator Julian Fellowes has been talking about making some iteration of it since his first series, Downton Abbey, became everyone's favourite upstairs-downstairs drama. At least some of the delay was caused by Fellowes becoming enthralled in research about late 19th-century upper-class New York City folk and the divide between new money and old, which is the setting for The Gilded Age.
The large ensemble cast is relatively unknown bar a few familiar faces, including Cynthia Nixon who's having a mini renaissance right now with this and And Just Like That coming out so close together. She's marvellous as the kind-hearted somewhat ditzy of the two old money sisters who take in their niece after their estranged brother dies. There's generational conflict, race conflict and class conflict when the new money neighbours move in, as well as some truly excellent gowns.
Because Greg is willing to give less than 1 per cent of television programming a go, and pooh-poohs 98 per cent of that during the first episode, I misunderstood his critique of The Gilded Age when he announced that Fellowes clearly has a formula. Knowing Greg seethes at the idea of any kind of formula when pursuing a creative endeavour, I assumed this meant we would not be continuing the series together. But I was wrong. After a convoluted and ultimately pointless conversation, I discovered that, by George, he liked it and its formula. This is a real breakthrough for him and for our television viewing as a couple. He better get used to my old money accent because we're seeing this thing through to the end. Or at least I am - I give Greg one or maybe two more episodes tops.
When Zanna asked what I thought of the feature-length first episode, I said that creator Julian Fellowes certainly has a formula: Gosford Park, Downton Abbey and now The Gilded Age are all dramas of manners focusing on extremely wealthy society people from a long time ago, and their servants. I said I also thought some of the dialogue was quite corny.
Predictably, she disagreed with both those objectively correct assessments, but more surprisingly she disagreed when I said that in spite of those concerns, I liked it.
"Doesn't sound like you liked it," she said.
"It's possible to have some critiques of a show but still enjoy it," I said.
"Yes, but you said you thought it was formulaic," she said, "and there's nothing you hate more than something that follows a formula. You've said that many times before."
I said that what we were in now was a language game, and that my complaints about formulae are not about formulae in general, but about the specific formula relating to three-act structure and the hero's journey which has become Hollywood studio gospel and has been enshrined within the screenwriting industrial complex.
"There are many formulae I don't object to," I told her. "I have no problem at all, for instance, with mathematical formulae." She rolled her eyes at that.
My instinct is to dislike Julian Fellowes, with his inherited aristocratic title, his peerage, his conservative political views, and his out-of-time views on "cancel culture", but Gosford Park was a great movie, and the season of Downton I watched was also pretty enjoyable. It's possible that he's a nice man with a talent for creating a certain type of entertainment, and his only real weakness is his inability to see the ways in which his privilege has led him to hold a certain set of beliefs.
Zanna said part of the appeal was that it was "juicy". While less insightful than my observations, it was nevertheless a good point. Whatever else Julian Fellowes knows, he knows how to bring the juice, and that's why The Gilded Age, like Downton Abbey, will be watched by millions of people, who, by the end of the first season with the Brooks, the Russells, the van Rhijns and Peggy Scott, will be unable to think of anything but what's going to happen to them next.
The Gilded Age is on Neon and Sky Go from this Tuesday and SoHo from Sunday, January 30.