We are still living in the age of prestige television, despite the multitude of expensive streaming services complicating the viewing experience. After “Game of Thrones” came to a bitter end this summer, it seems like everyone is watching and enjoying the same shows, myself included. Looking back at everything I’ve watched this year, I can’t help but notice a common trend in this common pop culture consumption: We are obsessed with stories about obscenely rich people, and it’s worth analyzing why this is.
On Nov. 17, Netflix will release season 3 of “The Crown,” a drama about Queen Elizabeth II’s reign in the mid-20th century. Not only is the show wildly popular, but it is one of the most expensive TV shows of all time, with a cost of $13 million per episode. It’s a fun show, and I can’t help but be invested in elements like the dramatic romance between the fictionalized Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones and all of the international controversies that implicated the U.K. royals.
Peter Morgan, the creator of the show, is dedicated to making the show as historically accurate as possible, portraying the gross material excess and colonial horror of the monarchy, but at the same time, he makes the fictionalized royals slightly sympathetic. To the New York Times, he said, “As an institution, it’s indefensible. Of course it is. And yet the whole thing’s so bloody ridiculous you can’t help feeling slightly sorry for them.”
Of course, it’s debatable that the royal family deserve this sympathy at all, considering their lives are built on the wealth gained from imperialism, but "The Crown" isn’t the only show currently playing with our sympathies for the extremely wealthy, and it isn’t limited to the U.K.
HBO’s “Succession,” a show that I like to refer to as “King Lear” meets “Gossip Girl,” recently finished its second season. The premise of the show revolves around a billionaire family that owns a giant corporation and the family drama surrounding who will take over the business when the father dies. Every character is indisputably a terrible person, and it’s often played for laughs, but the narrative still provides a sympathetic character arc for each Roy sibling, leaving the audience rooting for them to rise up against their father.
Many screenwriters build their shows around the concepts of an “attractive” or “negative” fantasy, enticing their audiences by showing them a life they want or one they don’t, and both are interesting in their own ways. In “Crafty TV Writing,” Alex Epstein writes, “We watch some shows because the characters are in a situation that we’d like to be in. In 'The O.C.,' the characters have personal problems we can all relate to (romance, family, money), but they’re young, slim, and beautiful, and live in spectacular houses under the Southern California sun… We watch 'The Sopranos' because our family is just like that, but at least no one’s getting whacked.”
The TV shows about rich people fit somewhere in this attractive and negative fantasy spectrum. On one hand, we might enjoy the aesthetics, costumes and generally attractive characters in these shows, but on the other hand, we become obsessed with their petty, ridiculous and sometimes despicable drama that seems so fantastical to us. The key word is “fantasy,” as we tend to treat these stories as they are not real. Of course, on the surface level, they aren’t. They are fictional stories for entertainment purposes. At the same time, all media functions as propaganda in its own way, and if we are conditioned to view billionaires as ridiculous and silly on TV, we are less likely to question their existence in real life.
Some portrayals of excess wealth function as social commentary and satire, too, and we can’t discount the fact that some shows like “Succession” can also serve as an argument to why billionaires shouldn’t exist in the first place.
Institutional commentaries about wealth and status are as old as entertainment itself, and we can look to Shakespeare’s famous quote from “Richard II": “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings.” Cycles of wealth and power are doomed to destroy and kill.
Of course, satire only works if the audience can understand it, and every viewer is going to take away something different from the media they consume, no matter the intentions of the creator.
There are still a lot of shows and movies about working class people and many serve as effective anti-capitalist commentary, but shows about wealthy people are popular and pervasive. Even fun and creative shows I personally love like “Fleabag” are about the struggles of a wealthy, posh woman, created by a member of the British landed gentry. They’re still great shows and very fun to watch, but it raises the question of whose stories are being told in the industry when working class writers don’t get the chance to tell theirs in the first place.
No matter our reasons for watching, it’s undeniable that the market is oversaturated with stories of wealth created largely by wealthy people, and that needs to change. This doesn’t mean stop watching these shows, but just to change the way we engage with them and be aware of which stories we are promoting and celebrating. It is absolutely necessary to be a conscientious consumer of all things.