The rich may rule the world, but they take it on the chin on TV

Illustration of a mansion on a TV screen with the legs of a person sticking out from under the TV. Lush grounds surround.
(John W. Tomac / For The Times)
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Talk about good network synergy: Last year, “House of the Dragon” co-creator/showrunner Ryan Condal referred to his then-new “Game of Thrones” prequel as “‘Succession’ with dragons.” And he’s right; despite their obvious differences, at their core those HBO series have lots in common — most specifically, ostentatious displays of ultra-wealth.

But they’re far from alone: These days, TV is positively rich in stories about those with more money than they can ever spend. “Industry” (HBO) goes into the trading floors of London; “You” (Netflix) brings its American antihero to UK academia, where he rubs elbows (and more) with the idle rich; “Loot” (Apple TV+) looks at the deserted wife of an ultra-rich tech giant; “The White Lotus” (HBO) shows the wealthy frolicking (and dying) in Italy; “Billions” (Showtime) turns mergers and acquisitions into a blood sport; and “Yellowstone” and “1923” (Paramount) focus on what it means to be moneyed on the range.

And in most cases, the rich are getting totally roasted.

“A lot has changed in the way we see [ultra-wealthy] people, because we see them more [publicly] now,” says Sera Gamble, “You” executive producer. “Someone who is unbelievably wealthy, stepping forward with a public face and persona — that never used to happen. They decided to let us get to know them better.”


Four people toast with champagne while standing on a boat with a beautiful coastline behind them in "The White Lotus."
Aubrey Plaza and Will Sharpe play newly rich characters joining rich friends played by Theo James and Meghann Fahy on vacation in “The White Lotus.”
(Fabio Lovino / HBO)

In doing so, the impression that’s been left is usually far from positive. As wealth inequality increases in the U.S., the aspirational tone evident in series from the past such as Robin Leach’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and “Dynasty” or such films as “Wall Street” (which turned “greed is good” into a mantra for the ambitious) seems to have taken a turn. Today, TV series are more likely to show how callow, capricious and removed from reality those with too much money can be. The message is no longer that “money can’t buy love or happiness” but that “money turns you monstrous.”

“House of the Dragon,” which takes place in the fictional medieval land of Westeros, is led by the dynastic “billionaires of their time,” the Targaryens, as executive producer Sara Hess says. But the fact that kings rule the land doesn’t disconnect the message from today’s modern world, she adds. “We don’t have kings any more — or never did in this country — but maybe human society, in the end, wants that,” she wonders. Today’s ultra-wealthy “might as well be riding dragons. The equivalent is they’re launching their own rockets into space.”

A scene from "Succession" in which the cast is seen on the grounds of a Tuscan villa.
Jeremy Strong (left), Kieran Culkin and Brian Cox co-star in “Succession,” with a storyline that saw the fictional Roy clan take private jets to a wedding in Italy’s Tuscany region.
(Graeme Hunter / HBO)

An effort to keep things light and hopeful reigns at “Loot,” with the focus on a newly independent, newly ultra-rich ex-wife trying to do good in the world. “We’re writing the flip side of [‘Succession’],” says Alan Yang, series co-creator with Matt Hubbard. “As in, what if you had a brighter view of humanity but people were still messing up left and right?”


Gamble says this fourth season of “You” came out of gathering in the writers room during the pandemic and leaning into a new “cultural awareness” of these newly visible billionaires.

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Getting to turn the fictional tables on them (which the series has done to a lesser extent in its previous seasons) was cathartic, she reveals: “If it weren’t in some way fun to write about subversive stuff, I wouldn’t have spent the last years of my life writing people getting shoved off buildings and thrown in meat grinders.”

But a show like “Industry” isn’t interested in catharsis or lessons. Its approach, which focuses on rookies running the gantlet of finance, doesn’t judge, says Mickey Down, co-creator with Konrad Kay. “We never want to be didactic in the way we tell this story. We want to allow the audience to make up their minds. I have people LinkedIn-ing me, asking if this is a recruitment tool for finance…. Which is scary.”

Kay, however, says the glut of ultra-rich stories has never been about raising awareness or stoking anger. “A lot of the people creating this stuff — it’s privilege poking privilege,” he says. “It’s not an actual anger. It’s an anger that they think is fashionable and will sell. I don’t see it as some sort of big revolutionary act or anything.”

“Loot’s” Hubbard agrees but still hopes shows like his can move the needle among audiences. “It’s not our intent to change the world, but people are influenced by what they consume,” he says. “I think these shows can be a small part of starting the conversation with people. You can have a minute grain-of-sand influence.”


What they’re really reflecting by showing (and skewering) the rich and powerful is much deeper, “Dragon‘s” Hess suggests. “I think there are fewer people in society who think, ‘If I work real hard, I’m going to have [Jeff] Bezos [level] money.’ We are sort of at a cartoon villain stage. So if they’re ruling over us, it’s good to see them having a s— time. But in the real world, those people get to decide things about our lives that are less than equitable. It’s like a monarchical decree you can’t do anything about.”

She pauses, then adds, “Maybe capitalism is our king.”