How should a rich person be? In Succession, the HBO drama about the trials and tribulations of the ultra-wealthy Roy family and their crumbling media dynasty, the answer is, mostly, unhappy. In the first two seasons, as patriarch Logan Roy was faced with the problem of choosing one of his disappointing children as a successor we saw a gallery of paranoid elders and neurotic, despondent heirs rattling around their gilded cage, pecking at each other. (The third season will air in the coming weeks.) The characters seemed terrible but real, the tone was an unusual combination of funny and unsettling but clearly articulated – conversations about politics were topical but cynical. It felt weird, honest and fresh. It was excellent TV.
But, in our risk-averse production climate, every good cultural artefact is replicated and warped in the process, usually losing whatever it was that made it good in the first place. And so there has been a trend of similar shows, all playing off the premise of a group of hyperwealthy people, awkwardly bound together – by family connections, staying at the same hotel, or attending the same school – in an unhappy tangle of resentment and neurosis. The cast of characters includes recognisable stock types (the “white feminist” girl-boss, the entitled older man, the rich socialist). The characters talk about the sort of political and cultural topics for which we all know what the “right” position to hold is. The tone is humorous.
Where Succession represented the best of this, The White Lotus and the Gossip Girl remake (copying not one, but two, premises) are the worst of it. In these, the format has been reduced to an empty and pandering moralistic tale about bad rich people. The characters feel like educational devices. Gossip Girl is full of guilty young heirs calling each other out on their relative levels of privilege, or for fat shaming, or not attending lectures on deforestation; the unsettling humour of Succession has collapsed into a guilty earnestness. Meanwhile jokes in The White Lotus come with a kind of manically obvious “rich people are stupid and they do stupid things” exaggerated-wink-at-the-audience – a quality I’ve come to think of as “honk honk”. Succession is an original TV programme; its successors, however, are something between a parable and an Instagram infographic about a recent news event.
Of course there have always been shows (and films, novels and plays) about the exploits of rich people, often conniving and wicked ones. But one of the dreariest, and least politically productive, developments in recent years is the expected performance of hollow social justice rhetoric of everyone from billionaires to princes. These shows respond to that climate, unwittingly highlighting just how wearisome and futile it is. Why can’t we explore glamour and badness without trite sermons on privilege and climate breakdown?
The White Lotus has been praised for its “uneasy discussions about race, consent and privilege” but are they uneasy viewing? Who for? With these topics there seems to be an idea among liberals that, while a small number of us know the right way of thinking on these things, most others are totally ignorant. This is arrogant but also clearly false. Who doesn’t know that colonialism is bad? Or what the progressive line on white men is? Perhaps the same person who missed all of the discourse around “Karens”? The intended audience for this ilk of shows has been having these conversations for the past decade, and maybe even contributed to some of the talking points in the form of viral tweets. It’s not that these conversations are radical, at this stage, but rather that they are insular.
The problem is that The White Lotus and Gossip Girl feel as if they are trying to absolve me of something; that I am supposed to watch them and smugly think: ”Haha, look at those awful people in the fancy hotel with their bad politics.” In an interview, the creator of The White Lotus, Mike White, said the character he most identifies with is the put-upon hotel manager Armond. “I sometimes feel like I’m in the service industry, even though I’m not,” he said. “Dancing for the man – I find myself doing that a lot.”
Everybody wants to feel like this; it’s very flattering. Who would identify as “the man”? But cruelty, vapidness and some culpability for the state of the world does not start at the absolute top wealth bracket, and is not the preserve of a certain identity category. The White Lotus has been described as “biting social satire” (Gossip Girl is too obvious for that), but I think it’s the opposite. It indulges the dominant political sentiment of our time (on the left, the centre and the right): a strange acceptance that, while things are very bad, none of it has anything to do with any of us. I don’t buy it, and honk-honk laughing at the super-rich doesn’t make me feel any better about it.
The pandering trope of wealthy, oblivious white people is absent in Succession. Instead virtually every character is utterly cognisant of the progressive line on everything, and perfectly happy to use this knowledge to their advantage. (See Siobhan Roy using her status as a “feminist” to persuade a woman not to testify in a sexual assault case which could ruin her father’s company.) There is a brutal honesty to this very recognisable cynicism which is not solely the preserve of the elite.
But, despite its excellence, there is a more subtle pandering element in Succession. The miserable, powerless billionaire heirs, imprisoned by their wealth and status, play into a popular idea: that almost everyone, from millionaire property tycoons to supermodels, is having a terrible time under capitalism. Everyone, other than perhaps Jeff Bezos, is simply doing their best to “survive”. Maybe that’s true but it seems like wishful thinking. I think this is why Logan is the most compelling character of the show. With his hardness, his sense of purpose and his ruthlessness, he possesses a strange dignity. He is wildly selfish, a liar, devious, manipulative and obsessed with the accumulation of wealth and status for its own sake. He hates his children (who could love them?) but he doesn’t make a performance of hating his own life. There is an honesty to that.