From ‘White Lotus’ to ‘Succession,’ why we can’t get enough of watching rich and terrible characters on TV
The young boy swings and sends out the ball skyrocketing. He darts around the bases and nearly — nearly — slides into $1 million when Roman’s future brother-in-law tags him out with troubling passion.
“That is so sad,” Roman informs the kid, keeling over in laughter. The Roys leave the field and go back to their Manhattan empire. The young boy is left ashamed.
It’s possibly the hardest-to-watch scene in a series whose de facto lead character eliminates somebody in an automobile mishap (and is still, in some way, a hero).
It is the American dream, after all, to rise to a greater socioeconomic status than that which you were born into. However what the very best programs about the abundant solve is letting them consume cake, then squashing it.
Drawing viewers into the uber-rich lifestyle
Take, for example, Coolidge’s haunted alcoholic Tanya. There are more despicable characters than hers — one Ivy League trust fund kid hellbent on revenge is particularly unlikable — but Tanya is almost more dangerous because she’s oblivious to her own selfishness. More than once, she floats the idea of funding a wellness center run by beleaguered spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), but just as quickly abandons the idea to compliment a wealthy family or complain about a vacation fling. She speaks as though she’s sleepwalking through her privileged life, blissfully unaware of the people she steamrolls as she moves.
Despite focusing on the uber wealthy, both “White Lotus” and “Succession” bring viewers in via outsider characters who don’t fully fit that category: In “Succession,” viewers are brought into the Roys’ world by also experiencing the journeys of affable Cousin Greg and his power-tripping, beta-male boss, Tom Wambsgans. In “The White Lotus,” those tuning in also see events through the eyes of struggling journalist Rachel, icy frenemy Paula and overworked spa manager Belinda. The average viewer can relate to these characters, while witnessing the actions of larger-than-life figures at the center of the story.
That said, the insidious nature of wealth is more subtle in “The White Lotus” — if not more familiar to audiences. Chances are, many of us have encountered a pompous collar-popper like Jake Lacy’s Shane or an oblivious White man who bumbles through a defense of his privilege like Steve Zahn’s Mark. These are people who are high-powered in their own spheres, whose familial strife may not move markets but can still devastate bystanders. In that way, they’re almost more detestable than the Roy family of “Succession” — fans may have experienced the type of pain the characters of “The White Lotus” have wrought firsthand.
“It’s a great show, but it’s very king’s court. You can kind of otherize them. They’re billionaires,” he said. “With ‘White Lotus,’ I wanted it to be more, like, this is your next-door-neighbor rich person who is part of the system.”
Little by little, the outsider characters find themselves engaging further with the wealth and status of their associates, drawing viewers in just the same.
It’s very American to be fascinated by the wealthy
But as time went on, wealthier families also came into focus: “The Jeffersons” focused on a Black family enjoying a newly prosperous life. The soap opera “Dynasty” followed the dramas of an oil magnate’s extended family. “Beverly Hills 90210” featured rich, clueless teens who, despite their status, suffered just like the rest of us. Those series weren’t always critically acclaimed, but they were widely watched.
The American fascination with wealth is natural, given the importance our culture places on upward mobility and achievement, said June Deery, a professor and department head of communication and media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“The great mythology of the American Dream encourages people to think they can aspire to be wealthy in their lifetime, so they may think they are viewing a future projection of their own situation,” Deery told CNN in an email.
“It is easier to satirize and laugh at the vulgarity and extroversion of the nouveau riche than at the restraint of old money perhaps,” Deery told CNN. “It certainly seems like the Real Housewives are often set up to be mocked. Yet some viewers still write online about admiring them, envying them, almost worshipping them.”
That’s the American Dream at work, Deery said.
We’re attracted and disgusted in equal measure
Television reflects and reinforces the importance of wealth, said Jim Burroughs, a professor who leads a master’s program in global commerce at the University of Virginia and studies materialism.
“People would be materialistic without TV,” he said — noting that France’s extravagant Palace of Versailles predates TV and film. But watching so much content about the lives of the rich influences the value we place on material things and personal wealth, he said.
“We might initially be attracted to television because of the affluence it depicts, but then viewing this most definitely reinforces the strengths of holding these beliefs,” he said. “So it’s a reinforcement cycle — we watch television because we like to see the wealth, which makes us more materialistic, which makes television more attractive,” and so the cycle goes.
It’s less clear, he said, why we’re equally repulsed by and drawn to these characters, though he speculates it has something to do with social comparison: We compare our own actions to those around us, for better or for worse, and adjust our behaviors accordingly. We may be disgusted by the behavior of the wealthy people we watch while subconsciously coveting all that they have, he said.
“I don’t believe these feelings are mutually exclusive,” Burroughs said. “I think you can admire what someone has, but also be jealous of what they have as a result of these implicit comparisons to yourself. So when you see the ‘real housewife’ who drives a Bentley you can simultaneously admire her and resent her” — and maybe, he said, cheer when she falls.
The shows aren’t relatable — and that may be for the finest
The lives we see on TV — in fiction and reality series — are heightened for entertainment purposes, Burroughs noted. Shows are edited to “portray an extremely slanted view of reality,” he said, be it through the constant jetsetting of the “Real Housewives” or the prevalence of weeknight parties and underage martini drinking in “Gossip Girl.” These heightened elements can distort our view of what affluence really is, he said.
And even when series are clearly poking fun at their characters, it’s possible that audiences can miss the point of even the strongest satire. Lines blur, and the voyeurs are enthralled suddenly by the way of life rather than the consequences of living that way, Burroughs said.
Perhaps the best argument against celebrating the lifestyle of the TELEVISION elite lies in Tanya on “The White Lotus,” whose bizarre behavior suggests that she’s the main character in a series in her mind. She doesn’t dwell extremely long on the lives of others. She’s mostly removed from the action, living in her own bubble of sadness. It’s hard to covet anything about Tanya’s disastrous individual life and profound loneliness, even if it does land her at a luxury resort. She epitomizes one of the series’ main takeaways: Having it all — even vacationing in Hawaii — will not conserve you from your own suffering.
Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.