Earlier this month, the latest series of Succession, the hit HBO drama about warring media family the Roys, concluded with an explosive finale set at the Tuscan wedding of Lady Caroline Collingwood, ex-wife of patriarch Logan Roy and mother to three of the Roy children. But one scene above all was truly gut-wrenching – when Kendall, Logan's troubled middle son, collapsed to the ground and had an emotional breakdown while flanked by his siblings Shiv and Roman. This happened not in the beautiful villa where the wedding took place or its gardens, but instead in a dusty alley around the back, right by the bins. As the episode's director Mark Mylod explained to Vulture, this location was deliberately chosen for this crux moment because of its bleakness: "It was that dustiness, and it was 100 yards away from the beautiful green glamour of the wedding, but it felt like a different world. We could put that new, harsh light down on the characters, and they've got nowhere to hide," he said.
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Amongst the Tuscan views elsewhere in the episode, it was the bins that stuck out. This unseemly detail pointedly encapsulated what Succession, and other watercooler shows of 2021, have been trying to do: strip away the aspirational quality we tend to associate with wealth.
With its latest season, Succession emphasised the desolation of its super-rich characters more than ever (Credit: HBO)
Alongside Succession, The White Lotus and Nine Perfect Strangers – both dramas set at luxury resorts – have also centred the lives of highly privileged but unglamorous characters. And then there are the shows concerned with the other side of the economic divide, and the exploitation of the poor by the rich: the Netflix phenomenon Squid Game, with its tale of debt-ridden South Koreans cajoled into bloodsports by mysterious, super-rich "VIPs", and Maid, another autumn hit on the streaming platform, which told the story, inspired by author Stephanie Land's memoir, of Alex, a young woman living on the brink of homelessness while cleaning fancy houses. This focus on the rich-poor divide on screen goes hand in hand with harsh realities; in the UK, government data has shown the gap between the richest in society and the rest of the population has widened over the past 10 years, with another recent piece of research calculating that the the richest 1% own almost a quarter of the nation's wealth. Meanwhile in the US, 2019 figures showed the wealthiest 10% own 70% of the nation's riches, while in February, a study found that the wealth of America's billionaires (around 650 in total) had increased by $1.3tn during the pandemic.
Many of the most-talked about shows of 2021 have scrutinised the 1% and pitted them against the 99%. As Vulture's TV Critic Roxana Hadadi points out, "most people watching these shows are part of the 99%" – so why have these shows captured the cultural imagination so strongly? "Succession does a very good job in making wealth seem not covetable," continues Hadadi, "White Lotus became a cultural conversation because most of us could see ourselves in the resort staff, and people latched on to Squid Game because everyone's backstories are very relatable. Who of us has not been in the kind of debt that you think you will carry your entire life?"
TV's historic idolisation of wealth
Television has long been obsessed with extreme wealth, but has traditionally explored it in ways that made it an unashamedly appealing fantasy, a world we'd be lucky to inhabit. Think back to the 1980s, the golden age of US soap operas and a heyday of consumerism, when shows like Dallas and Dynasty, both about the feuding of two bouffant-haired, shoulder pad-wearing affluent families, were huge cultural touchstones: the former was a ratings juggernaut, and the latter was nominated for Golden Globes every season of its run. Dallas in particular was not dissimilar to today's Succession in dealing with the in-fighting of the family of a tycoon, albeit one in oil rather than media, who wanted to protect their fortune at all (even human) cost. However unlike Succession, it had no qualms about making their venality look alluring.
The aesthetic of these shows became luxury cues for the brewing generation of "yuppies" that came to prominence during the economic boom of the 1980s. Reality then emulated fiction in Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, a reality TV show, before the term had even come into being, that ran from 1984 to 1995, and was the first of its kind to offer a peek behind the curtains of how the uber-rich lived. Participants needed to have a net worth of at least $50 million to be profiled, and the show would duly fawn over their extravagant houses, massive pools and gigantic fridges. Among the Hollywood names featured – in a wild intersection of totems of super-richness on TV – was Dynasty icon Joan Collins, who was shown doing aerobics in full make-up and a gold belt.
The show would set the blueprint for a type of reality TV that was both hyper-materialistic and aspirational. MTV Cribs, a directed descendent of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, has been running for more than two decades now, giving a Dutch-angled glance into the private homes of singers, actors and professional celebrities. Key to the show is how it presents the extravagant interiors as a prize for succeeding, with our famous hosts taking pride in what they can now afford thanks to their talent and hard work: the palatial penthouse of Mariah Carey, with an entire apartment-sized room dedicated to shoes and a wall glaze that Carey picked because it "looked like candy"; the giant jacuzzi in Lil Wayne's living room; the lush music studio in Usher's home. Its influence could be felt in the slew of reality-TV borne out of the noughties and beyond, from Keeping Up with the Kardashians (whose final and 20th season ended this year) to The Real Housewives franchise of shows and, most recently, the luxury realtor show Selling Sunset. In drama, meanwhile, the legacy of Dallas and Dynasty could be found in teen shows like The OC and the original Gossip Girl, that were less interested in critiquing their characters' extreme privilege than in luxuriating in their stylish lifestyles, serving up what has come to be known derisively as "wealth porn".
For many of us, it may take months, years to get a piece of furniture that we like. There's a fascination with having the means and the access [that characters on TV do] – Nelson Coates
When it comes to today's TV landscape, we've hardly stopped ogling wealth – reality TV aside, just look at the gorgeous houses with vast kitchen islands that seem to be a prerequisite and key selling point of so many shows, from thrillers like Big Little Lies and The Undoing to comedy-dramas like Master of None and a whole sub-genre of domestic potboilers, seemingly inspired by 2015 hit Doctor Foster, in the UK. Only in the last few weeks, Sex and the City has made a comeback, rebranded as And Just Like That, and luxuriating more than ever in its characters' expensive lifestyles, set up for viewers to covet: "you’re going to notice the Peloton, the gigantic kitchen and the expensive stove. Carrie's home is all about the lingering shots of her closet, her shoes and her purses," says Hadadi.
The White Lotus exposed the grotesque self-involvement of its rich holidaymakers, like tantrum-throwing honeymooner Shane (Credit: HBO)
In general, though, it is interiors that are now used to communicate wealth more than fashion. "It's not even about the size of space. It's about the materials, the sheen, the colour, the accents," says Nelson Coates, an acclaimed production designer who has worked on The Morning Show, Apple TV+'s glossy drama about breakfast news anchors starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, as well as films including Crazy Rich Asians and Fifty Shades Freed. "If there's a walk-in closet, a wine refrigerator in the kitchen, an accent wall, a built-in wet bar – these elements instantly communicate a level of wealth that can afford not only the real estate, but the custom-made commodities that we don't even see in interior design magazines. We're looking for really unusual materials – that little marble from Brazil that has a blue line through it, something not readily available."
These design choices communicate multitudes about the characters, Coates says. On The Morning Show, Jennifer Aniston's character, Alex Levy, lives in a luxurious but cold condo where "everything is in perfect position, as if she has someone coming behind her and cleaning up after her. She also puts her awards in the front part of her house, and the art is for show,"” he explains, whereas fellow anchor and frenemy Laura Pearson, played by Julianna Margulies, lives in a cosy brownstone, and has her journalism awards "in the [more] private space of her house, to remind her of the places she's been to and the stories that she's covered".
In many cases, though, this kind of detail is also there to appeal to audiences' materialism. When the spaces these characters inhabit in their private lives are so different from ours, they create an aesthetic fascination that overrides any moral repulsion about the way they could afford those spaces: "We obsess over the sofa that we're going to buy and that chair that we're going to get. And for many of us, it may take months, years to get a piece of furniture that we like. There's a fascination with having the means and the access [that these characters do]," says Coates. For the protagonists of And Just Like That, "money is essential", says Hadadi, "because it provides the items with which these women define their lives".
Taking the fun out of materialism
But it's the shows that really problematise wealth – and take away the glamour of it – that are the biggest talking points in 2021. While the wealth porn giants of yesterday have all been remade and updated in recent years – Dallas in 2012, Dynasty in 2017 and Gossip Girl this year – they have failed to become conversation starters like the less attractive takes on the super-rich. From Succession to The White Lotus and beyond, TV instead is thriving on truly joyless millionaires and our disdain for their unthinking excesses. These shows also emphasise the grotesque blinkers that affluence and privilege puts on people, from the tantrums thrown over small inconveniences by honeymooner and demanding mummy's boy Shane in The White Lotus, to a corporate lawyer's complete ignorance of how an unpaid cleaning bill might affect her employee's livelihood in Maid. If there's one recurring image that emphasises the bleakness of these rich characters' condition, it's the throwing away of food. In Maid, on her first job cleaning the house of said lawyer, Alex, who obsessively counts every dollar she earns and spends in her mind, is instructed to throw away literal piles of fresh, organic produce – food that could feed her and her toddler daughter, who can barely afford to eat, many times over. In Succession, an entire feast is thrown out unceremoniously at the wave of a hand from Logan Roy. He never sees the banquet making its way into the bins, but we do. He doesn't care, but we do.
When we do see the Roys' personal lives, they seem very empty. It feels like a conference room that these people live in and sleep in. It's not appealing by any means – Roxana Hadadi
Part of the appeal of these shows is the moral high-ground they offer audiences over these despicable or clueless rich people. As Hadadi points out, while the wealth porn shows of yesteryear, like Dallas, Dynasty, and the original Sex and the City and Gossip Girl traded on the fantasy that "'I could have this kind of life. I could have these shoes, I could have these outfits. I could live on this ranch. I could be this person', the shows we're watching today make you fantasise 'I could tell that person that they are terrible'".
Netflix hit Maid centred the perspective of someone in service to the rich: struggling single mum Alex (Credit: Netflix)
The perspective of those in service to the wealthy is also at the centre of TV's current reframing of richness and has been key in viewers' ability to connect with these programmes. Most obviously, that is the case with Squid Game, in which the wealthy VIPs are absurd, mask-wearing caricatures, only briefly glimpsed, and most of our time is spent with their "sport", while in Maid, everything is seen from the viewpoint of Alex. And in The White Lotus, we get to spend as much time with the hotel workers as we do with the spoiled guests, seeing their frustration and coping mechanisms up close, whether it's manager Armond struggling to hide his contempt for Shane, or spa manager Belinda pandering to the spaced-out wrecking ball Tanya.
Succession, on the other hand, keeps its focus tight on its super-rich characters – which is possibly why it has itself been accused by some of being wealth porn. But while it can't escape the media trying to frame it that way, with articles on how to recreate its characters' wardrobes or rent the properties featured in it, in essence it's far from it. There is a coldness to creator Jesse Armstrong's portrayal of the extremely rich that is both emotional and visual. "For the most part," says Hadadi, "you do not see where these people live. They are consumed by business, exist on private jets or inside private cars. But when we do see their personal lives, they seem very empty. It feels like a conference room that these people live in and sleep in. It's not appealing by any means." There's an ugliness that underscores everything. It's in the little things: for example, the way in which, when a hostess tries to take Shiv and Roman's phones at Kendall's ostentatious 40th birthday party, they don't even stop, they just laugh at her and say, "You're gonna have to tase us"; or the disdainful way Caroline laughs at her own husband-to-be for being a "grasping little scholarship boy" and "buying his own furniture".
Succession also never seems to see much fun in materialism – the private jets and lavish parties – because it sees wealth only as a mechanism of power. The camera on the show moves quickly, careful not to latch on to anything lest it be considered beautiful or desirable. None of the characters seem to really want to be in the lavish apartments and villas that they find themselves in. In fact, none of the Roys actually know how to enjoy being rich, despite their hilariously vulgar attachment to their excesses (when threatened with taking away Waystar's private jets, Roman earnestly exclaims "Not the PJs! First they came for the PJs, and I said nothing…"). Put simply, their lifestyle is not aspirational – it's gross. This governing principle explains the see-saw between the emotional brutality and ineptitude of Armstrong's characters as they coast through a sterile lifestyle drenched in privileges that make them untouchable. Even, notably, by Covid. While the production of the third series was delayed due to the ongoing pandemic, the contents of the series were not rewritten because, as Sarah Snook, who plays Shiv, put it, "none of the world's really wealthy people were going to be affected by the pandemic".
Among its many achievements, Succession has shown a new way forward for exploring wealth on TV; it avoids falling into the trappings of wealth porn because it is so avowedly uninterested in the glorification of excess. The Roy's PJs and ill-fitting Gucci bomber jackets are not what makes them watchable, and while their tacky profligacy is there for our entertainment, their miseries are what keep us emotionally engaged.
Above all, Succession triumphs in zeroing in on the most consequential, and toxic, privileges that wealth can afford. For the Roys, it's not the PJs, it’s the getting away with murder. It's the covering up of deadly misdemeanors. It's their ability to dehumanise anyone who is not "one of them" without a second thought (as embodied in the chilling acronym used by Waystar Royco to refer to crimes involving marginalised victims like migrant and sex workers: NRPI, aka "no real person involved"). It's the ability to avoid repercussions for decades of covered-up sexual assaults. In last week's third series finale, with their dad planning to sell Waystar Royco to a new tech company, the Roy siblings panicked as they faced the possibility of being shut out of the power structure that has protected them their entire lives. We don't feel sorry for them, but we wouldn't want to be them either.
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