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The thrill is gone: Lifestyles of TV’s rich and famous now must come with consequences

A collage of characters from series centering on the wealthy.
From top left, Kate Winslet, Sofia Vergara, Morgan Spector, Tom Hollander and Maya Rudolph star in series about the wealthy.
(Illustration by Michael Rodriguez / For The Times; Miya Mizuno HBO; Elizabeth Morris Netflix; Barbara Nitke HBO; Pari Dukovic FX; Apple TV+)
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The rich, to put a spin on a biblical phrase, are always with us. In business, in politics — but also pretty consistently on TV too. HBO’s “Succession,” after all, took home three of the last four drama series Emmys before it wrapped its run last year. The small screen is filled with a parade of characters cossetted, burdened and driven to extremes by excessive wealth and its associated power — but is it a story we’ve seen a little too often and one that cuts a little too close to reality lately?

The answers are yes and yes, which means many series (limited and otherwise) are finding success by tapping into the lifestyles of the rich and horrible with new ways to expose those tarnished, gilded cages, including “Loot” (Apple TV+); “Mary & George” (Starz); “Griselda” and “The Gentlemen” (Netflix); “The Regime,” “The Gilded Age” and “The Righteous Gemstones” (HBO); and “Feud” (FX). And in the process, their creators are reconsidering that their wealthy, fantastically awful protagonists not only need a makeover — they also require some comeuppance.

“‘Dynasty’ was popular when I was a kid,” recalls Matthew Read, executive producer on “The Gentlemen,” a show about a man whose newly inherited estate houses a marijuana empire. “But it would be hard to have an audience look up to those characters or enjoy their conspicuous consumption in the same way [today]. Something like ‘Succession’ let you enjoy how unhappy these rich people are.”

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Starring in the Guy Ritchie series keeps the actor on his toes, with scripted beginnings and endings and lots of space in between.

May 28, 2024

Watching the rich enjoy their privileges, at one point, was a way for the have-nots to peep into a life they’d likely never attain. “People are aspirational,” says Gillian Anderson, who plays a TV journalist whose interview with Prince Andrew forces the royal to retreat from public life in Netflix’s “Scoop.” “Everyone always imagines that when you get that rich or famous, that means everything is going to be OK.”

“It’s interesting to see what people do with those opportunities,” says Chloë Sevigny, who plays a wealthy heiress on “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans.” “It’s something we’re all curious about: What would I do with that money?”

And as Julian Fellowes (creator of class-conscious historical drama “The Gilded Age,” who writes the show with Sonja Warfield) notes, not all rich folk need to be portrayed as horrible: “Some people who have made a lot of money are really nice and see it as their job to pull their weight. Others feel they’ve done the work and they should have fun and everyone else should push off.”

But that’s the trick these days in focusing on characters with unimaginable wealth. With suggestions that an abundance of money actually affects people’s thinking — consider the “affluenza” criminal defensewriters are shifting tack. Will Tracy has been doing this for a few years now, writing for “Succession,” penning 2022’s “The Menu” (with Seth Reiss) and creating “The Regime,” a limited series about an out-of-touch ruler in a fictional country.

“There’s that madness that seeps through all [those] projects,” Tracy says. “You can see it in ‘The Regime,’ that that amount of power and access to material resources has allowed her to create her own reality, and everyone around that person has to pretend that her reality is reality.”

That vicarious, fantastic thrill that audiences once gleaned from stories of the rich and powerful takes on different meanings in TV series about them today. As billionaires proliferate and expand the ever-widening class divide in the real world, watching the super-rich slip away without real consequences can make a show feel hollow, not aspirational.

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Some series are addressing this more directly: “Griselda” invites audiences to identify with a female drug lord — a gender shift Eric Newman (who co-created the limited series with Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard and Ingrid Escajeda) says puts a new spin on things. Retribution, in the end, is exacted on her through the deaths of her children, a consequence he’d insisted on.

“As storytellers, we have an obligation to show that there is no happy ending when there’s this much trauma,” he says. “I look at criminals sympathetically, but if you’re telling a story that adheres to authenticity, these people don’t get away with it.”

Tracy’s fresh spin in “Regime” involves a political dictator who craves love from her constituency but is way too involved in her social media perception. “When shows like ‘Dynasty’ were on TV … the richest people in the country were ciphers, this black box,” he says. “Now the richest and most powerful people in the country are very visible … and they let us into their world through social media. They want us to be part of their thought process, and their thought process is, largely, insane. ... We want to watch that freak show.”

“Mary” creator DC Moore says when he was putting together his limited series about a mother and son amassing wealth and status from King James I, he recognized there is an echo of the past in today’s real world. “I feel like we’ve come back to that sort of age, in the last 10, 20 years where absolute power and autocracy is on the rise and those leaders are everywhere,” he says. “I completely had that in mind when I was writing this.”

But not every show is aiming directly at a big, consequential ending for its characters. “We’re in an interesting time, and people have a greater understanding of behind-the-curtain [life] and that money doesn’t solve everything,” says “Gemstones” creator-star Danny McBride, whose show is about a family of wealthy televangelists. “But I don’t think consequences have to be the point of [my] show. That’s not how I view storytelling, that a certain show has to follow a certain payoff.”

Meanwhile, there’s “Loot,” which has gone all in on the concept of having billions fall into the lap of a protagonist who wants to do good with it — instead of spending it, say, shooting rockets into the air or stumping for autocracy.

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Co-creator Alan Yang (with Matt Hubbard) notes that the show “isn’t a polemic; we’re not trying to change everyone’s minds. ... but this show is on the end of the spectrum where we believe change is possible. It’s not just one lone billionaire, it’s not even every billionaire — everyone has to pull together to fight stratification in society. Ten nice rich people are never going to change the world. But do you have any hope that people can change? That’s baked into the show. Ultimately, that’s at the heart of what we do.”

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