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‘The Gilded Age’ Season 2 Tests the Pleasant Appeal of Low-Stakes Soaps

Bertha Russell is staring out the window at the falling rain. Perched a few feet away, anxiously waiting, is her guest, but Mrs. Russell (played by Carrie Coon) pays her little mind. One gets the sense she could’ve stood there peacefully for 10 minutes, maybe 20, without eliciting any questions from the invited woman (a character best left unnamed), but a TV show can rarely ask its audience to sit in silence for that long, so Bertha pivots to her prey and dispatches with her quickly. “Some gossip has reached me that I confess I find disquieting,” she says, swatting away a follow-up query meant to steer focus to a separate topic. Instead, Bertha continues apace, proceeding to annihilate her visitor, bluntly laying out her failings before making clear she has no room for recourse. She will do what Bertha demands, or she will be further embarrassed — perhaps in public, rather than this private conversation in which she is barely a participant.

Once her demoralized guest storms out, Bertha permits herself the slightest smile. The scene ends there, but I imagine she soon returned to the window. She may have to step outside later, and the falling rain could leave a mark on her coifed hair or pristine vestments — damage her vanquished quarry never even threatened.

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Watching “The Gilded Age” Season 2 is a lot like watching the rain. Seeing the sparkling drops cascade from the heavens to the earth at our feet — one after the other, as if prancing down a staircase — can be comforting for a time. But eventually, you long for something more. Your attention must shift to more pressing matters. To put it more plainly, television isn’t meant to pattern itself after rainfall. A rainstorm, maybe, what with flash floods and traffic accidents demanding immediate action, but not a light drizzle’s suspense-less repetition. “The Gilded Age,” in its diluted second season, somehow dies down after its comparably brazen debut. The absence of actual conflict — problems that require more than a polite request to sort out — is so pronounced it threatens to undermine the serene parade of beautiful gowns by boring the pants off of those wearing them.

To say nothing happens in “The Gilded Age” Season 2 would be hyperbolic, but only by a thread as thin as a hemline. Even for those who’ve always seen Julian Fellowes’ opulent HBO period drama as light, blissful entertainment, relatively unconcerned with the weightier issues available to it (racial discrimination! evaporating social norms! escalating industrial competition!), these eight new episodes are still atypically flat. Moments pop thanks to the cast and costumes, period details and occasional dressings down, but not only does Season 2 fail to deliver Carrie Coon a proper adversary (despite trotting out numerous playthings, like mice asked to fell a mountain lion), it barely invests any emotion in its ample yet tertiary plots. Forget deeper meaning. Where’s the sopping soap?

The overriding arc — perhaps in a meta nod to its melodramatic intentions — does focus on opera. The longstanding Academy of Music has fresh competition for New York’s hoi oligoi in the newly built Metropolitan Opera House. Those wealthy enough to afford seats must decide which performance hall offers the highest status, and wouldn’t you know it: The Old Guard is backing the old amphitheater, and the New Guard (led by Bertha Russell) is hyping the new one. “As long as we have no box at the Academy, we are not at the front rank of society,” Bertha says, before setting about to replace one clout-bestowing institution with another.

Bertha battles Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy), courts her constituents, and even contends with a surprise rival, but none of these obstacles require much more than common sense solutions. We don’t get much satisfaction from marveling at Bertha’s wit or gasping at her ferocity. (The rainy day guest is about as close as Bertha comes to exacting a Selina Meyer-style evisceration.) Despite Coon’s sly charms and simmering temperament, her formidable character from Season 1 seems adrift here, waiting and ready for a challenge that never comes. And her husband, the railroad tycoon George Russell, fares even worse. An ill-timed plot about striking union workers bends over backward to make George appear the hero, yet only manages to accidentally expose his plainly villainous principles. Toss in a midseason spat, and TV’s hottest couple is rudely shoved under a cold shower.

The Gilded Age Season 2 Denee Benton Louisa Jacobson Meryl Streep's daughter
Denée Benton and Louisa Jacobson in “The Gilded Age”Courtesy of Barbara Nitke / HBO

Relationships should be the saving grace of any melodrama, but “The Gilded Age” struggles to find a spark. Our first season ingenue, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), spends Season 2 fending off ill-fitted admirers and playing out a prospective romance with a gentleman who’s too carelessly developed for anyone to believe he’s Marian’s long-term suitor. Her friend, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), is similarly sidelined, when she’s saddled with a proximity partner — someone who’s just kind of there, sticking around long enough that eventually they may as well kiss. (That their fling blows up one of her only other intriguing attributes is left as a problem for Season 3 to sort through.)

Then there are our favorite spinster sisters, Agnes (Christine Baranski) and Ada (Cynthia Nixon). While Agnes is her fiery old self — tossing truth bombs without worry and belittling anyone who dares disagree with her — Ada is given an unexpected love interest. But despite the screen time dedicated to their dates, the most promising affair in Season 2 sees a far too predictable end; one not limited to the couple, but that also foretells how a seemingly unrelated late-season cliffhanger will be resolved.

Such disappointments in the love department can be chalked up to a lack of affection for those involved. There’s little effort put into eliciting things like chemistry or affection. It’s as though Fellowes took the era’s custom for condensed courtships as a challenge to see how quickly he could create and destroy each couple. The audience has no time or reason to invest in these love stories, which robs “The Gilded Age” of one of its core satisfactions.

Other arcs don’t fare much better. Oscar (Blake Ritson) is a walking disaster, my guy (getting beaten and humiliated on a regular basis, basically for sport), Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane) is stranded as a feckless pawn rather than elevated to a delightful co-conspirator, and Dorothy, Peggy’s mother played by the great Audra McDonald, is similarly underutilized. Why bring in the Broadway elite only to squander their talents? Let the actors go off, already!

[deep breath] OK. Clearly, I’ve worked up a head of steam, and before I can say that’s more ardor than “The Gilded Age” can claim to have conjured, let’s block out a corner for calm, objective, observations. Season 2 is still perfectly pleasant. There’s nothing that will upset your grandparents, and those watching solely for the exquisite ensembles won’t have their smorgasbord of fine couture upended by anything uncouth. There’s a thematic motif of dissolving social strata: servants become socialites, socialites become servants, and priests become eligible bachelors. Such plots don’t always go anywhere, but they’re pronounced enough to enhance the story’s historical framework. It almost goes without saying that the performers do their jobs admirably, and I’d be lying if I claimed each episode wasn’t easy to watch.

My only lament is that they’re a bit too easy. Even “Downton Abbey” offered drama, be it upstairs or down, actual wars or petty ones. “The Gilded Age” is shifting far too close to embodying its phonetic counterpart. While some may be content watching the rain, no one dreams of a gilded cage.

Grade: C+

“The Gilded Age” Season 2 premieres Sunday, October 29 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes will be released weekly and available on Max.

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