Tag Archives: television

The Gilded Age: In My Period Drama Era

cover image for HBO's the gilded age

Lately the only thing I’ve been wanting to watch during my downtime is period dramas. Something about the coziness of low-stakes drama fits with the coziness of the holiday season. I burned through Hotel Portofino on PBS Masterpiece; I dipped my toe into Apple TV’s (largely silly and CW-like) adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers. But the one that has really captured my attention is HBO’s The Gilded Age, whose second season is now airing.  

Created by the same guy that did Downton Abbey, The Gilded Age follows a similar upstairs-downstairs approach but moves the focus across the pond to 1880s New York. The drama follows Old New York society—big money, bigger dresses—as they are infiltrated by the audacious new money Russell family (based on the real-life Vanderbilts). Mrs. Russell is a scheming queen whose only goal is to secure a spot at the coveted Academy of Music opera house (and to marry her daughter off to the richest, most impressive man she can find). Mr. Russell is a robber baron, a ruthless railroad tycoon who will extort anyone and everyone in order to support his wife’s ambitions. Truly, they are the power couple to end all power couples. The drama, in comparison to other shows, is very low stakes and ridiculous (one of the climaxes concerns a character walking dramatically across the street), which is appropriate for a show whose namesake, coined by satirist Mark Twain, denotes a “period of gross materialism and blatant political corruption.” Edith Wharton’s famous Gilded Age-era novel The Age of Innocence is full of contempt for the Old New York families and their highly rigid, Anglophilic society (“gilded”, of course, refers to the thin sheet of gold that hides less glamorous material). Still, it makes for engrossing television! 

The show’s second season delves into more serious subject matter by tackling the plight of railway workers and their long fight towards unionization. After years of being subjected to horrendous (and dangerous) working conditions, the railway men take up the chant “Eight! Eight! Eight!” as they demand an eight-hour workday, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours of recreational time. It’s fascinating to watch the structure of our own modern lives be wrestled into shape by the hands of these working class men—a structure that has somewhat broken down in our technological age (how many of us take work home, or stay in the office past the allotted eight hours?), but one that we have been lucky to benefit from. (Jenny Odell’s insightful How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy discusses the formation of 19th century unions as an early form of protection against soul (and body) crushing capitalism). These workers placed themselves in the literal line of fire to advocate for change.  

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Over the Garden Wall, a Picture-Perfect Autumnal Feast 

If you’re an autumn afficionado, you may have seen the cartoon masterpiece that is Over the Garden Wall, the 2014 children’s series that ran on Cartoon Network over the course of one week. Since then, the show has reached cult classic status among adult viewers who return to the short, 10-episode series yearly as the air turns cold and the leaves turn vibrant. Aside from the impeccable fall vibes, I’ve been thinking about what makes this one-off series so enduring. There are tons of fall-flavoured specials out there, but Over the Garden Wall seems to hit the bullseye—like teasing out the appealing elements of other media and combining them into the ultimate autumnal stew. It’s got the coziness we all crave this time of year without forgoing the spookiness of the season (maybe just a touch spookier than most children’s fare?), while pulling directly from cultural touchstones of yore. It also localizes the story to a pseudo-New England setting, in some vaguely post-Civil War/turn of the 20th century timespan. It’s a feast for Halloween fans, but also for big ol’ literature and history nerds (like myself).  

The plot of Over the Garden Wall is simple: two brothers Greg and Wirt find themselves lost in a strange land called the Unknown, a place out of time that is full of dark forests, strange inhabitants, and a sliding scale of sinister threats. As they try to find their way, they earn the help of a less-than-friendly bluebird named Beatrice who promises to take them to Adelaide of the Pasture, ostensibly their ticket home. Story-wise, Over the Garden Wall recalls familiar tropes of Western literature, especially the young person’s journey dotted with eclectic weirdos going all the way back to chivalric tales of Medieval Europe (a la King Arthur and his round table) and into the 20th century with the likes of The Wizard of Oz. OTGW pokes meta jokes at this (and its Hansel and Gretel fairytale structure) in episodes like Songs of the Dark Lantern, where the brothers come upon a tavern full of townsfolk who are known only by their occupation: the Butcher, the Midwife, the Tailor and the Apprentice. They prod Wirt until they discover his narrative function: he’s the Pilgrim, a “traveler on a sacred journey, a master of your own destiny!” 

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Fall TV: Return to Westeros, Middle Earth, and More

Fall television season is upon us, and fantasy fans are eating well. I have a real penchant for fantasy movies and television shows based on books that I haven’t read, and there is plenty of new content to keep us entertained as the nights start to get darker. Below are some adaptations I’m particularly excited about; let us know your own picks in the comments! 

House of the Dragon

How are we feeling, everyone? Are we ready to revisit the world of Westeros? Have we put our hurt sufficiently behind us? We all remember the catastrophe that was season 8. I don’t want to talk about it. Suffice to say, when Game of Thrones ended in 2019, I declared that I would never lay eyes on another A Song of Ice and Fireadjacent property again. Fool me once, right? Cut to three years later, which in pandemic years feels more like eight, and I find myself cautiously optimistic about this new prequel series. The groundwork has already been laid; we already know the houses and the lore of Westeros. We all have our fave houses (Tyrell forever!). But where Game of Thrones spanned several houses and the entire continent of Westeros (and a bit of Essos), House of the Dragon, based on the novel Fire and Blood, reins in the scope to focus mainly on the platinum-haired, dragon-wielding Targaryen family.  

Where the original series covered conflicts and power grabs from house to house, House of the Dragon deals with the inter-family civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons (not to be confused with A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series…), which is essentially a war of succession (funnily, apparently the showrunners looked to Succession for inspiration). So get ready for more inappropriate family relationships (the Targaryens are famously incestuous, much like the real-life Ptolemy and Habsburg dynasties) and confusing names like Rhaenyra, Rhaenys, Aemond, Daemon, and multiple other combinations of a and e (as someone who still can’t spell Daenerys without the help of Google, this will surely be fun for me). I just watched Wigs Versailles, a show about King Louis XIV’s court at the titular palace, full of melodrama, political machinations, assassinations and the like (and also beautiful, gorgeous hair). So I, for one, am primed and ready for more of that…plus dragons.  

House of the Dragon airs on Crave (HBO), Sunday nights at 9:00 pm. Get caught up on the original series here.

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