What’s the deal with rich people?A question that television has increasingly begun to ask. From Squid Game to Succession, to Nine Perfect Strangers and White Lotus (plus the Gossip Girl reboot, to a lesser degree), 2021 was dominated by prestige TV that probed the inner-workings of the ultra wealthy.
To be fair, this has been happening for a while – Sam Esmail’s hacker thriller Mr Robot (2015–19) was reflective of a post-recession awareness of wealth disparity that fuelled the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, while astute shows like Atlanta demonstrated the effects of those inequalities on a community. In 2019, we saw the rise of Big Little Lies, The Righteous Gemstones and, of course, Succession – scripted TV shows that infiltrated the ranks of the rich and exposed them in their own kingdoms. Meanwhile, filmmakers were peeling back the wallpaper too, with Oscar-winners Parasite and Knives Out brutally eviscerating rich people's disdain for those beneath them. The dramas of 2021 have taken even further steps to burrow into the heart of wealth – and they’ve found an insurmountable void. These characters, they seem to suggest, are just as broken, lonely and miserable as everyone else if not more. They are haunted by an inability to form meaningful relationships and go to twisted lengths to feel anything at all, such as sexually terrorising an older colleague (Roman and Geri, Succession), creating an elaborate game that offers people in debt the chance to risk their lives for cash (Squid Game). Hell, they don’t even know how to go on holiday (White Lotus).
Until the early 2010s, there was a discernible “us vs them” dynamic of class politics on TV. Offbeat comedies like Malcolm In The Middle, Trailer Park Boys and Shameless were about families struggling for money, dodging the police and doing crime. Even though the characters spent most of their time screaming at each other, there was warmth found in this lawlessness; an understanding that everyone was just doing what they had to do. On the other side of the coin, The Thick of It and Veep satirised the bumbling corridors of political power in the UK and the US in a way that is now impossible, because it’s already exposed to us in real life on a daily basis. Across other genres, rich people sort of disappeared into the fabric. Period dramas like Mad Men had social mobility built into the narratives of the characters, while escapist fantasies like Game Of Thrones and Dr Who became some of the most popular TV shows in the world. A lot of the time throughout the 00s and 2010s, whenever we did see properly rich people on TV, they were usually found knocking about decadent mansions in teen dramas or reality shows, picking at salad and making glib remarks about an upcoming trip to Cabo. In short: Rich people used to be easy to write off as out of touch weirdos – either amusing personalities, ridiculous pantomime villains, or both (which is largely why reality franchises like Real Housewives and Selling Sunset remain hugely popular). They might have been shitty parents with bad taste in hats, but they were rarely positioned in relation to the average viewer. This was as true for TV as it was for real life, until the Occupy movement gave a shape to “the one percent” and named it the face of global strife. Now, there’s little room for aspiration – on TV or in life. We’ve entered a new era in which the extremes of inequality are reflected in the sky-high stakes of the entertainment we consume.
Since the 2007 financial crisis, TV has slowly veered away from empathetic comedies revolving around everyday families and their concerns, and towards unfathomably rich families being massive arseholes to each other. In a time when viewers bond, seemingly more than ever, over what they hate rather than what they have in common, entertainment that puts rich ghouls under a microscope have become our bread and butter. The degree to which we now need entertainment to be a vessel for critiquing societal ills is possibly reflected in the fact that It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia – a show about a group of hilariously irredeemable people – is now the longest running live-action sitcom in US history.In 2021, TV knit together the personal and the impersonal, showing us the emotional fabric of rich people’s lives within the wider context of very real, present concerns. Whether it’s the harrowing rounds of Squid Game or the enduring colonial damage that enables White Lotus-esque hotels to exist, death hangs over each of these shows one way or another. Behind even the most comedic of characters, there’s a distinctly haunted vibe, like they each have a Dorian Gray-style portrait locked in an attic somewhere. There’s guilt, shame, self-loathing – some of it existential, some of it rooted in the actions we see on screen. A lot of that darkness comes from the fact that the effects of of wealth inequality, racism and colonialism – of the systems that capitalism props up – are embedded in the language of TV now, in the same way they’ve been embedded in the language of social media for years. And while it’s not the role of scripted TV to be as prescriptive, it does reflect our life-and-death political warfare in a more literal sense. Fcolonior those who find themselves on the wrong end of power (that would be you and me), disdain even comes as a gift.Gunned down during a fatal children’s game; accidentally stabbed as the result of a drawn-out petty conflict with one of your hotel guests; left to drown in a car crashed into a lake by an inebriated would-be heir to a media empire, and immortalised forever as the kid whose death was not as tragic as waiting three quarters of an hour for a gin and tonic. Choose your fighter!@emmaggarland