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Review | ‘The Gilded Age’ finds its footing in a soapy second season

In its second season, “The Gilded Age” — Julian Fellowes’s peculiar attempt to channel the themes of Edith Wharton in the key of “Downton Abbey” — abandons lofty and literary ambitions and settles for being the soapier, sillier project it always was. This makes it a massive improvement over the muddled and strangely anticlimactic first season, which set up several promising storylines and then inexplicably failed to deliver on any of them. “The Gilded Age” knows itself now: This is a series about the new rich spending outrageously to bring down social barriers the American aristocracy tried to keep in place. There’s a blistering simplicity to that, and to Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), the show’s real heroine, whose only wish is to achieve an uncomplicated form of punitive social supremacy, and who acquires absolutely no additional traits or dimensions in the new season.

This time, Bertha wants a box at the Academy of Music. (Not because she likes music, but because getting one would prove she’s made it.) Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy), her longtime nemesis — whose character is just shorthand for “old money” — claims that there is a waiting list and that some other families are ahead of her. This upsets Bertha. The current season also touches on May-December romances, cancer, racial violence in the South, tycoons squabbling over whether to gun down workers protesting for better wages, the return of the evil maid Turner (Kelley Curran), a scrappy inventor, a shocking bankruptcy, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and even Oscar Wilde. The stakes of all these combined pale compared with the show’s breathless investment in whether Bertha will get her box.

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I can’t pretend I find the question as compelling as the series does, but it does propel other, more engaging subplots forward (and, as a bonus, makes some very pretty costumes possible). Fans of the Brook-Van Rhijns household will be pleased; they all get quite a bit more to do. Ada (Cynthia Nixon) and Oscar (Blake Ritson) are particular standouts, but Christine Baranski gets to do some surprising work as Agnes, too. Denée Benton finally gets to really dig into Peggy’s grief, and her tense relationship with her parents acquires new and interesting layers even as she starts to make it as a journalist working for T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones). Audra McDonald does particularly good work as Peggy’s mother, Dorothy. Nathan Lane’s Ward McAllister remains, alas, a little hard to take. But Marian (Louisa Jacobson), the ostensible protagonist of the first season, benefits greatly from a reduced but far more convincing storyline that seems true to her temperament in ways her romance in the first season never did.

As for the Russells: The children, an appealing duo, chafe under their monomaniacal mother’s increasingly bizarre interventions; Larry (Harry Richardson) is seriously pursuing architecture, while Gladys (Taissa Farmiga, who deserves meatier stuff) haplessly dodges suitors. Bertha’s husband, George (Morgan Spector) battles his unionizing workers in a conceit extending the show’s long track record of trying to make George both a ruthless captain of industry — the kind that might pitilessly drive a man to suicide — but also (maybe?) a good man. Best not to think about it too hard, and anyway, Spector’s chemistry with Coon remains (despite a couple of pleasurably soapy hiccups) off the charts.

These more serious subplots sometimes feel less like real narratives than dutiful moral ballast. Juxtaposed with the frivolity of Bertha’s quest, they’re meant to make high society seem a little silly, but the effect is mixed; the show likes the Russells a little too much to seriously undermine them. While the world seems bigger, then — and despite a larger cast that includes Laura Benanti as a widow hoping to redo her Newport home, “Station Eleven’s” Matilda Lawler as one of Marian’s biggest fans, Nicole Brydon Bloom as an eligible heiress, and (most excitingly, to those of a certain generation) Robert Sean Leonard, who plays the new pastor in town — the stuffy society Bertha’s fighting to penetrate feels quite a bit smaller. The “old money” world, her nominal antagonist, seems so feeble it sometimes seems like poor Mrs. Astor, a cipher herself, is representing all of them, with the occasional help of one or two snooty friends.

As for the downstairs crew, nothing quite beats the inter-butler wars of the first season, but there’s a lot to like in this one, including a charming subplot concerning a patent. Downstairs might, in fact, be the one area where some real complexity around class arises; more than one person in service in the second season turns out to have some experience being upper class (and having servants) themselves. It’s a fun dynamic that lets the show’s exploration of social mobility, which usually gets pegged to Bertha (and her one strategy, spending), acquire a little more texture and breadth.

The first season of “The Gilded Age” sometimes felt as if it repeated its premises so compulsively it forgot to develop them. The best thing I can say about this new season, besides the fact that it’s fun, and that a lot more happens, is that it doesn’t make the same mistake.

The Gilded Age premieres Sunday on Max, with subsequent episodes streaming weekly.

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