The ongoing saga of a billionaire media oligarch and his blundering offspring clambering for his approval, “Succession” is a hothouse of the rich and damaged, stuck in a trap of their own making. The show functions as an engraved invitation: Come and smirk at their absurdity and enjoy the opulent surroundings while you’re here. Joke about their power rankings! Just please, don’t think too deeply about the systems that bolster these entitled ogres so luxuriously. Three episodes remain in the current season, but never fear, there’s plenty more where this came from, should you want to seek it out.
“What the world needs now are more stories about the family lives of rich people,” someone said sarcastically on Twitter recently, and it’s an incisive point. There have always been stories about the rich, but it feels like there’s an unusual preoccupation at the moment. You can’t swing a diamond-studded something or other without hitting a prestige project like “Succession” or the Princess Diana biopic “Spencer” or the money-and-glamor crime drama “House of Gucci” or the pursed-lipped royal family spectacle of “The Crown” or the Regency romance of “Bridgerton” or the silly soapiness of “Downton Abbey,” the latter of which has a new movie coming in the spring in which Maggie Smith’s character announces: “I’ve come into the possession of a villa in the South of France.” As one does. Servants do in fact exist as people with their own hopes and dreams in the world of “Downton Abbey,” but they are forever loyal and true to their plummy-voiced, obscenely rich employers. Hey, one even married into the family! It’s all peaches and cream and no one resents or questions this imbalance, not ever.
I get the escapism. Really, I do. There’s nothing wrong with peering into this world as if thumbing through Architectural Digest. But it’s alarming the way these projects avoid interrogating how this wealth was acquired. Not enough U.K. or U.S. creatives are asking: In the end, who is really paying for all this wealth? Instead of eating the rich, Hollywood would prefer to deliver the fantasy that we all want to break bread with them instead.
Season 2 of “The Great” premiered on Hulu last week and it is as visually arresting as ever, whip-smart and sometimes an outright comic farce in its depiction of Russia’s 18th century ruling class, first led by Peter III (a hilarious Nicholas Hoult playing the buffoonish brute as a sexy and semi-charming Hugh Grant type) and then, thanks to a coup, the woman who would be known as Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning, bringing intelligence and unexpected humor to the role). Historical inaccuracies abound in the show and there’s a buoyant sense of “oh, who cares — isn’t this way more interesting?” about these flubbed details. But there’s one that I just can’t quite swallow: That Catherine the Great alone was not clouded by the grandiosity of her surroundings and was uniquely horrified by the violence and deprivation inflicted with such casual regularity on the people of Russia. “The Great” would have you believe she was the people’s princess — sorry, empress — and you’re on her side because of course you’re on her side, she’s all about the Enlightenment! She might be the only person in the royal household with a scrap of humanity. And yet the truth reveals something altogether different: “Catherine’s reign was marked by vast territorial expansion,” according to History.com, “which greatly added to Russia’s coffers but did little to alleviate the suffering of her people.”
Come January, HBO will roll out “The Gilded Age,” from “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes, which appears to be a battle waged over teacups between new money and old, and gorgeous as it may be, nothing in the trailer suggests a deviation from a focus specifically on the wealthy and the indulged. In reality, all of it was financed on the backs of everyone else choking on factory smoke, sweating away in dangerous conditions. Exploitation is always the name of the game at this level. Pretending otherwise, because class warfare is not as fun to film, doesn’t change that.
These bubbles where power and corruption are protected, they’re not neutral storytelling settings, but function as aspirational mirages. When the rich are your main characters, they are inevitably the ones who are humanized with inner lives and complicated motivations that explain blah, blah blah. Meanwhile the rigged systems that prop them up are just a fact of life, nothing to see here. Meanwhile South Korean exports like “Parasite” and “Squid Game” offer scathing indictments of the rich and oblivious and the systems that make all this possible, while being just as interested in the lives of those living on the brink (who aren’t saints either, by the way).
With the exception of a show like “Leverage,” which was recently rebooted for IMDb TV as “Leverage: Redemption” (and has never pretended to be aiming for prestige), we rarely see the rich face an annihilating comeuppance. Even rarer are stories that hold the rich accountable for the ways in which racism and other bigotries are deliberately baked into the system as calculated obstacles— certainly in the U.S., from its colonization and founding onward — to enable this vast accumulation of wealth. Or how a particularly narrow slice of the population invests enormous sums to ensure this status quo remains put. For every series like “Maid” on Netflix, which shows the crushing weight of how expensive it is to be poor, there are countless more that prefer to glide by anything remotely critical of the systems that make this a reality.
Last year, when the first season of “Bridgerton” premiered, I talked about some of these themes with Patricia Matthew, a professor at Montclair State University. “I just keep coming back to the idea that the Regency never depicts its wealth as a product of any kind of work,” she told me. “They just inherit it. It’s just there.” Great Britain may have abolished the slave trade by the time the show takes place, but all the money propping up these families most assuredly is the product of it, directly or indirectly.
To some extent, Hollywood is part of this self-perpetuating structure as well. And perhaps that is why it is so disinterested in greenlighting stories that challenge these inequalities. Or explore what it looks like when people come together and say “no more.” What is the message Hollywood is currently sending? And how is it being delivered? The media we consume doesn’t just tell us what is true, it tells us what — and who — matters. What I’m saying is: We can think about TV and film critically while also enjoying it.
“The Crown” and “Spencer” are fascinating because they intentionally focus on individuals rather than the corruption of monarchies in general, and the British monarchy in particular. Even in “The Crown’s” fourth season, when Princess Diana is finally added to the storyline, the show isn’t a full-on critique of any of this. There’s a compelling argument to be made that the Windsors are conniving and toxic. But that’s where the analysis in these projects usually ends. Even if the Windsors were nicer people, these other issues still remain, from the vast wealth of the Crown obtained by force through empire building, to the considerable personal wealth of the royal family, the latter of which is kept private because it would be in such terribly bad taste to inquire further. Ten years ago, Forbes estimated that Queen Elizabeth’s personal net worth alone was in the half a billion range, let alone that of her family. How much has that grown in the last decade? Wouldn’t it be compelling to dig into that?
Even when there’s a book chewing over these themes ready to be adapted, it seems to get lost in development hell. Jo Baker’s 2013 novel “Longbourn” tells a Jane Austen-eseque story, but instead of focusing on the drawing rooms and sweeping estates, it centers the people who work in the household.
The book was optioned seven years ago. A director and cast were attached at one point, even. But so far, nothing.
I’m not holding my breath.
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