The ‘Succession’ effect: how TV dramas got angrier about the rich
In the critically lauded, awards-festooned HBO drama Succession, a group of billionaire siblings vie with one another to win the favour of their media mogul father, who is one part Lear to two parts Rupert Murdoch. The Roy family’s psychodrama unfolds against a backdrop of opulent locations, from gleaming town houses and elegant country piles to the family’s gargantuan superyacht.
The Roys’ view of the world is neatly summed up by one of their number, Tom, played by Matthew Macfadyen. “Here’s the thing about being rich,” he says. “It’s fucking great. It’s like being a superhero, only better. You get to do what you want — the authorities can’t really touch you. You get to wear a costume, but it’s designed by Armani and it doesn’t make you look like a prick.”
When it debuted in 2018, Succession felt unusual in the very negative portrayal of its ultra-loaded protagonists. Where previous wealth-obsessed productions — from The Wolf of Wall Street and Crazy Rich Asians to the Dallas and Dynasty reboots — had their heroes and villains, the world of Succession is inhabited only by the latter, each of them more venal, self-interested and emotionally stunted than the last.
Four years later and Succession is no longer an outlier in presenting a critical portrait of the wealthy. Recent films such as The Forgiven, starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain as moneyed travellers who wreak havoc in Morocco, and Netflix’s I Came By, in which Hugh Bonneville’s high court judge hides a bloody secret, show the moneyed elite exploiting their status to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. And this month brings a new ITVX/Amazon Studios series, Riches, about a family of wealthy black Londoners headed by Hugh Quarshie’s self-made patriarch. When Quarshie’s character suffers a stroke, the children from his two marriages go to war over the future of his empire.
Anyone who has seen the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, in which James Stewart’s George Bailey takes on a town’s callous moneylenders and wins, will tell you that heaping scorn on the rich is not a new thing in the entertainment business. But the sheer number of productions currently challenging the social and economic status quo, and showing the super-rich as feckless and cruel, suggests a real anger at a world where the richest 10 per cent own three-quarters of global wealth, and rampant inflation in food and energy prices is hitting the less well-off the hardest.
Lucy Prebble, a writer and an executive producer on Succession, notes that the seeds of the series were sown after the election of Donald Trump as American president in 2016, when “the US went from a politics of slick, exciting optimism into something cruel and base and regressive — a sort of innocence was lost”. As a result, she says, the series’ makers calculated on audiences being “more open to a cynical and less aspirational take on the powerful”.
For Abby Ajayi, showrunner of Riches, the shift in how screenwriters view the wealthy originates in more pervasive financial insecurity, especially among the young. It is the result of “the realisation that, as millennials, we have no pensions and we can’t buy houses. The things that we once expected to have, and our parents’ generation expected for us, are no longer there. So [we] are more critical about the outsized billionaire class — like, who needs that much money?”
Which is not to say that Riches is not aspirational. Ajayi, who lives in Los Angeles, was born in London, the daughter of Nigerian immigrant parents. “From an immigrant perspective, wealth, along with education, is a way in which you gain stability, security, control and acceptance,” she says. “Writing Riches, I was interested in what wealth in contemporary Britain looks like, and what it looks like in a black family where it isn’t about generations of security. This is first-generation money, so the proximity to where it came from, and the fear of losing it, is still very present.”
It is one thing, of course, to revel in the spectacle of rich people tearing chunks out of one another, but another to watch the impact of their actions on other people in their orbit. In the Palme d’Or-winning film Triangle of Sadness, the billionaire passengers of a luxury yacht are shipwrecked on a desert island alongside the staff who, just hours before, had been cooking their meals and cleaning their toilets. No prizes for guessing who demonstrates better survival skills.
October brought the return of The White Lotus, the hugely successful HBO drama series that views the spoilt, narcissistic guests of a luxury resort through the eyes of the desk clerks, waiters, beauticians and cleaning staff paid to attend to them. Viewers of the first series will recall its startling denouement in which Murray Bartlett’s stressed-out hotel manager emptied his bowels into a guest’s suitcase.
But, if that sounds extreme, it is nothing next to what the dirt-poor protagonists of Parasite, the Oscar-winning film by the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, did after conning their way into the pristine, ultra-modern home of a high-flying businessman.
Do the rich really deserve such blanket opprobrium, though? Is it possible that the pendulum has swung too far against those who have, whether by accident of birth or from good business decisions, made a success of their lives? The director and screenwriter Julian Fellowes says the current crop of dramas tap into what he sees as “a subconscious desire in many people to believe that the rich and successful are somehow morally lacking — they have no taste, they have no values — when I would say that moral values are pretty evenly distributed among every level of society.”
Fellowes is best known for his rose-tinted 19th- and 20th-century evocations of the British aristocracy in series such as Downton Abbey and Belgravia. He says “the rich in the past can be seen as part of a kind of pyramid structure that gave everyone a job to do, and the rich who did their job are considered essentially good”.
“But I would argue that the same is true today. I know plenty of rich people who want to do good, where their own responsibilities are concerned, but also with causes affecting the general public. The idea that they are all selfish and self-serving is simply untrue, but can be traced to a widely shared wish that anyone really successful must be deficient as a personality and preferably miserable.”
Prebble, on the other hand, has no qualms about cutting the wealthy down to size — she wants to chip away at the allure of the corporate route to getting rich. Jesse Armstrong (Succession’s creator) and the artists who make the show “are interested in a sort of pathetic cowardice and grey disdain that permeates the corporate world — something that sector desperately tap-dances to hide”, she says.
“If we can make the life of finance or banking or consulting seem more like what it is — an amoral talent-drain of young people processed into a graduate life that will financially reward them but not actually fulfil them — then I’m happy.”
There is, of course, a practical reason for having rich characters in prestige drama, however we may feel about them. “Setting your story among men and women with money means wonderful backgrounds, marvellous clothes, and a visual feast, which is part of the business of screen entertainment,” says Fellowes.
Prebble also notes that wealth “can be a bit of a trick to raise the stakes”. The rich tend to be powerful, “which gives their actions, and inactions, bigger stakes, on a global scale, because what they do affects so many of us”.
“In Shakespearean times, you might explore a human flaw or tragic frailty through a royal character. Nowadays, that might be more likely to be a CEO or tech overlord. I think the delight some people find with Succession is how ugly, petty and unhappy the lives of the mega-wealthy can be. Being driven to have and keep vast amounts of money, even when you have enough, reveals a certain sort of personality to begin with.”
And, whether these people are accumulating money or losing it, we can’t stop watching them — HBO reported an average of 6.1mn viewers globally of the last season of Succession while the first season of The White Lotus was watched by 7mn. Rampant wealth is inherently fascinating, even — and perhaps especially — for those who don’t have it. It seems that, while most of us are happy to see the super-rich taken down a peg or two, we are not above mere rubbernecking.
Reality television long ago developed its own voyeuristic sub-genre, commonly called “wealth porn”, an early example being the nakedly covetous Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which launched in the 1980s. More recently, one of the most popular series on Netflix in the early months of the pandemic was Selling Sunset, a brazenly trashy show about realtors at a luxury brokerage in Los Angeles who regularly snag six-figure commissions for a single sale, and which combines high-end property with outré fashion.
Ajayi notes there will always be shows made about very rich people, “because there is still that curiosity [about how they live], and because putting that gloss on screen brings audiences. It is a love/hate relationship really”.
“We’re enjoying watching the accoutrements of wealth and power, but now we’re also seeing those people having the rug pulled out from under them. Which is fun, really, as, in the past, those people always won in their world.”
‘Riches’ is on Prime Video from December 2 and on ITVX later in December. The second season of ‘The White Lotus’ is on HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic/Now in the UK. ‘Succession’ returns to HBO and HBO Max in the US and Sky Atlantic/Now in spring 2023
This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment