How The One Percent Are Portrayed on Recent TV — and How The Best TV Can Make it Enjoyable
Tomorrow Showtime premieres Super Pumped: The Rise of Uber. The series features the always remarkable Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis Gallanick, the man who launched Uber and his rise. It has the makings of the kind of series that traditionally brings award nominations (the cast includes Kyle Chandler and Uma Thurman as Arianna Huffington) and the series has preemptively been renewed for a second season, which will cover the rise of Mark Zuckeberg and Facebook. It is timely and sounds like the sort of thing I should watch. So why am I suddenly so loathe seeing it?
I think a large part of is due to the recent trend in television these days — the drama behind the rich and powerful. There have been many rants these days against series that center on White Male Antiheroes, but I don’t see a lot of people of color on Succession and I’m pretty sure that Shiv does even more horrible things before breakfast than Skyler White and Carmela Soprano were trolled for online. I’ve already dealt with this trend before, but with the arrival of Super Pumped and the next couple of weeks worth of awards that will almost certainly delivered a large number of trophies to Succession, I think it’s actually worth talking about again.
I’ve already focused on all of the things I loathe about Succession so I won’t repeat them all here. Instead, I’m going to focus on something that a lot of viewers did talk about as of the season 3 finale: how the Roy siblings tried to pull off a coup against Logan, how Tom most likely betrayed them, and who the ‘loser’ of the season — and indeed the series is.
First of all, about the fact that the Roy children finally managed to unify themselves after three seasons of conflict: let’s not pretend that it was a personal triumph. They were motivated by the only thing that ever motivates them: the possibility of losing the company. We all know, however momentary the alliance was, even if it had worked they’d have turned on each other as soon as one could see an advantage. For better or worse, they’re Logan’s children. They’re just not nearly as good as him.
Second, yes it looks likely that Tom betrayed his own wife to his father-in-law in a move for wealth and power of his own. How is this a triumph of any kind? Now I grant you, with the exception of Cousin Greg, the Roys have always treated him as an interloper and when your wife tells you on your wedding night she doesn’t believe in monogamy you have every right to feel no loyalty. But all that Tom’s maneuver has done has shown that an upper-middle class man can, when the chips are down, be as cutthroat and bloodthirsty as his monstrous father-in-law is. (I’m actually going to come back to that point in a minute). I don’t believe for a second that Logan will give Tom a reward anywhere near the fiscal value of what his betrayal has cost him ethically (unlike everyone else on the series, he at least started the show with a soul) and we all know that considering the nature of Succession, he’ll be thrown under the bus when its convenient for someone more powerful. He already has been this season.
Finally let’s get to the core of it. Who eventually ends up ‘winning’ on Succession — and at this point in the series, can you honestly say any of these characters deserve to run Waystar — and get down who the loser is: America and probably the human race. The writers of Succession don’t embrace the political as much as they do considering this is a series about a cable news network, but they’ve made it fairly clear that at this juncture the Roys basically are conservative, they make and create Presidents, and the one they have waiting in the wings is to all intents and purposes a fascist. There were comparisons to Caligula throughout Season 3; it’s more than apparent to me that the Roys are all variations of Nero — fiddling while Rome burns. They will never pay for the horrible crimes they’ve committed — the power move Jeremy Strong’s character did at the end of Season 2 ultimately resulted in no consequences, much less jail for anyone involved — and even if nobody gets the company, they all have their own private jets. Unless the series ends with the Roy family being torn apart by a mob, there is nothing that could happen to any of them that is reciprocal with what they’ve done to the world.
Since I’ve spent so much time attacking a series I already hate, I will now turn my attention to one that I loved: Billions. I think the main reason I fell out of love with after four seasons may be due to the fact that I just got tired of seeing no one ever pay for the consequences of their actions. The five year struggle of Bobby Axelrod and Chuck Rhoades finally ended with Bobby losing — and still escaping punishment. Now that season 6 has begun and Mike Prince (Corey Stoll) has taken over Axe Capital, he has promised a new approach to doing business in a more ethical fashion. I’ve seen a couple of episodes and I know that nothing fundamentally has changed. Indeed, the characters seem only to have gotten more corrupt over time which is actually disheartening.
I particular mourn over the non-binary Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) who started out as one of the most fascinating characters because of their unemotional approach to business which has now become purely a mask for being as coldblooded and ruthless as Bobby was. I don’t actually blame them; we knew by the end of Season 3 how they got this way. Wendy (Maggie Siff) tried to convince not to form his own shop by telling him that you had to view the business as a family. Taylor looked at her and said: “No. It’s all about money. You taught me that.” And now it is too late to save him.
What has become painfully clear — and honestly needlessly repetitive at this point — is how money corrupts. This point was made clear two episodes ago when Sacker (Condola Rashad) the ADA who was Chuck’s most loyal soldier was poached by Mike Prince. Her switching sides wasn’t a shock; she’d betrayed Chuck at the end of Season 3 and justified it by saying she ‘was a political animal’ and had no problem going back to him the next season when the waters started running hot. What was shocking was how quickly she was willing to throw away her moral compass. Early in the episode she had a conversation with Wendy about how you manage to stay on the straight and narrow when you see everybody do the wrong thing. Wendy gave her moral advice and yet by the end of the episode, Sacker had no problem throwing away her ethics to help Taylor made a blatantly illegal trade. Chuck had cautioned Wendy about not ruining Sacker; it’s kind of sad it took less than episode for that to happen.
And indeed that’s kind of the monotony that has plagued Billions for far too long; for all that it has advertised itself as a clash of titans, the brutal truth is nearly six seasons in Chuck has almost no victories to show for all his struggles against the billionaire class. He has lost his wife; one of his top initial allies is now in jail and another now working for the enemy. Paul Giamatti is a great actor and it’s always glorious to watch him work, but any realistic politician (particularly one who worked in New York) would have either gone into private practice by now or at the very least shifted his targets. No matter how many times he changes his plan of attack, Axelrod and now Prince always seem to outmaneuver him. If it wasn’t painfully obvious to the viewer by now that money will always triumph over idealism, it sure as hell should be obvious to Rhodes. The one universal with every season of Billions has been even when Chuck wins, he loses. I have no doubt that’s how the battle against Mike Prince will end this year.
And as painful as it has been to watch the rich and powerful get away with murder, that’s been an ongoing theme this past year in TV. The White Lotus, for all its very real joys is fundamentally about a bunch of the elite doing horrible things to each other and not paying the price even when they’re on vacation. Recent streaming series like The Dropout and Inventing Anna seem to take more delight in true stories about real-life con-artists who duped the industries and people that trusted them out of billions. Even though they can be enjoyable, it’s hard to note the cynical underpinning.
I should admit I have become a huge fan of HBO’s The Gilded Age Julian Fellowes series about the struggles in 19th Century New York that I already consider one of the best shows of 2022. However, I do think there’s a certain key difference between The Gilded Age and Succession (aside from the obvious fact that in the former series every character is capable of dressing down someone else without saying ‘F — — Off!) and that is the show is not so much about wealth as it is about caste and gender.
The Gilded Age actually shows that none of the series about wealth tend too — the caste difference. At the center of the series are Agnes Van Ryan (Christine Baranski) and Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon). Bertha Russell is the wife of a railroad tycoon who has significantly more money than most of the families on the famous list kept by Mrs. Astor. But she is viewed with utter disdain by people like Agnes because it’s not the right kind of money. This is felt throughout the city. Her husband is offered a chance to build a railroad station the city desperately needs and offers a chance to the investors to make fortunes. They have no problem taking his advice but their wives refuse to entertain Bertha for any major society events. She may have a big and ostentatious house built by the best architect in New York, but they’re just not willing to let her even host a charity event at her house for free even if the next available venue is more expensive. And this becomes painfully clear at all levels. When it is announced that a new group of billionaires are forming an Academy of Music, the names are rattled off disdainfully “Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller”. When Agnes’ niece what’s wrong with their money, the woman just say ‘she’ll have to be educated.”
This is something that is never truly looked at in any part of our society: how the old money will always disdainfully view the new. This has continued throughout the twentieth century: the Lords of Baseball were impressed with the millions of Ted Turner, but found his approach to the sport ‘undignified.” And I have no doubt that the Warren Buffett’s and Steve Forbes looked at disdain at the Silicon Valley billionaires even to this day. I have a feeling that is a larger part of so much of Number 45’s attitude towards the world, he might be wealthy, but the old breed looked down him — and we all had to pay for it.
The second thing that makes The Gilded Age different is that is fundamentally dominated by women. None of the women, rich or poor, black or white, have anywhere near the rights of even the butlers and servants they employ. Bertha reacts by determining to chart a path for herself by standing behind her husband. Agnes pushes against the changing times by remaining stuck firmly the old way.
The irony is that in so many ways the women are alike, especially when it comes to the happiness of the young girls in their house. Bertha maintains an iron-like grip on her daughter’s movements and will not have her even talk with a man she feels is unworthy. She fires a maid who has dared to let her have the taste of freedom. Agnes is slightly less dictatorial in handling Marian, but she is subtle in manipulating Peggy, the African-American girl who she has hired as her secretary — and who she treats with more compassion then her own flesh and blood, Both want the ‘best’ for the women in the charge. The fact that the women themselves have no say in their own destinies is utterly irrelevant to both of them. I can only look forward to when Baranski and Coon are finally in the same room together, something the two have gone out of their way to avoid to this point in the series.
There’s also the fact that, unlike Succession, The Gilded Age makes having wealth and privilege look like fun. The Roys always look so suppressed by their wealth and are always miserable looking even in exotic locales. It is possible that The Gilded Age is merely an example of style compared to substance, but since I don’t really see much substance (or character) in Succession, I’ll settle for the style. There’s also the fact that we’ve seen more of the ninety nine percent in five episodes of The Gilded Age than in Succession and there are actually characters in this series with ambitions beyond attending the right parties (though I’ll admit there’s a bit of that here)
So at the end of the day, what are we to make of all of these series that deal with the games that rich are playing among themselves? It basically comes down to which version you prefer. Maybe the reason I prefer The Gilded Age to Succession (and Billions to an extent) for the same reason critics viewed Deadwood as a more optimistic series than the other two HBO dramas that launched the Golden Age of Television: The Sopranos and The Wire. The latter two series basically show the death of the American dream, while Deadwood despite taking place in a far darker and uglier setting, is about to the birth of it, about horrible and violent people unifying towards a common good. The Gilded Age is about that idea too: the changing of the times that would lead towards the Progressive era and improvements for almost all of the characters (the women in particular). It’s hard not to find more joy and pleasure in that then in anything that happens in Succession, a series which shows that the people who’ve effectively killed the American Dream for the rest of us can’t even get any pleasure out of the fruits of gains they haven’t done a thing to earn.