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New Wave of TV Shows Lets Viewers Watch the Rich Get Their Just Deserts

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” reads the sign at the entrance to the massive Gemstone family compound. It goes on: “No trespassing.”

 The Righteous Gemstones,” the new HBO comedy debuting Aug. 18, depicts a family that’s as pious about other people’s fortunes as it is protective of its own. Led by patriarch John Goodman, this brood of megachurch preachers has grown rich off contributions from parishioners; the next generation of Gemstones (adult children played by Danny McBride, Edi Patterson and Adam DeVine) indulge unholy appetites, happily secure in their inherited wealth and unconcerned with morality. 

Their affluence and their impropriety make the Gemstones part of an increasingly crowded neighborhood on TV, the burgeoning mini-genre of shows depicting enormous wealth — and punishing the enormously wealthy. Elsewhere on HBO is “Big Little Lies,” with its mega-mansions that house mega-secrets. In August, too, comes the second season of that network’s “Succession,” which portrays an oligarchical, perpetually bickering family dueling one another for control of a media empire that looks not unlike Rupert Murdoch’s; its representation of a faux Fox runs up against Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice,” which tells the story of the morally compromised and lucrative rise of Roger Ailes within the real Murdoch empire. “Billions,” a smash for Showtime, depicts high-level skulduggery in the financial markets, and “What/If” is Netflix’s anthology with a deep-pocketed Renée Zellweger ruining lives at the center of the action. At a moment when awareness of the class divide — to say nothing of an outright eat-the-rich fervor in some circles — is the defining political mood, demand for televised stories about the 1 percent may be at its highest point since “Dynasty” was on the air. The first time.

“When we break stories here, we say, ‘What’s a story we could only tell on this show as opposed to any regular soap opera?’” says Josh Reims, who is taking over as showrunner for the third season of The CW’s “Dynasty” reboot. “We should probably get a billionaire consultant to help us — a lot of us aren’t familiar with the billionaire lifestyle.”

One thing that doesn’t take a 1 percenter to understand is the elemental charge of watching one’s social betters get punished. “We’re at a time with a big gap between the rich and the poor,” says Reims, “and the big difference between then and now is that then was a fantasy, but now is a fantasy where they do get their comeuppance.”

That seems a fundamental part of the rush that the current spate of shows about the very well-off provides. “Succession” presents people with infinite means and no way of enjoying them, so concerned are they all with preserving their turf within the hellish endless competition they were born into. “The Loudest Voice” — should it continue to hew to history — does not end well for Ailes. And “Gemstones” creator and star McBride, whose series “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals” assayed the lives of thwarted members of the underclass, finds new comic potential in showing the way that wealth breeds its own delusions. His other characters, he says via email, “walk around with a chip on their shoulders because life didn’t shake out as expected.” By contrast, the Gemstones “are living life on a big stage. Success defines them. It gives us a chance to show how corrosive and destructive getting what you want can be.”

If, in the past, TV shows about the rich, from original-flavor “Dynasty” to “Gossip Girl,” have functioned as “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”-style escapism, perhaps the current boom works a bit more like a season of “The Real Housewives” in which several houses go into foreclosure. Indeed, this season of “Big Little Lies” features the most gaudily wealthy of the Monterey Five, Laura Dern’s Renata, forced to declare bankruptcy after her husband’s financial misbehavior comes to light. We’re no longer, if we ever were, just watching to look at the beautiful houses and expensive designer clothes.

One Percenter TV Shows Illustration
CREDIT: Zohar Lazar for Variety

Of course, these shows are still rooted in escapism — but of a sort less about fantasy than about a kind of gratitude, with the viewer pleased to have dodged the more problems that more money tends to bring. After all, few — at least on scripted TV — arrive in the penthouse without at least some skeletons in the closets on the lower floors. “Typically, broadcast shows have gone the route of cops and doctors and lawyers to get story adrenaline,” says Gary Levine, co-president of entertainment at Showtime. “We try not to go down those obvious paths — and yet extreme wealth and power gives you the same level of dramatic storytelling potential without having to find a dead body. So for us, it’s a more complicated, sophisticated way to find intense drama week after week without having to resort to obvious blood and crime and saving lives.”

Levine says “Billions” is “leading the charge” for the network as older series like “Homeland” — about the concerns of a previous political era, perhaps — prepare to cede the stage. And he acknowledges the degree to which there’s a fascination with the rich being portrayed as, if not always sociopaths, then as exceedingly complicated people. He compares Bobby Axelrod (played by Damian Lewis) of “Billions” to Showtime’s serial-killer character Dexter: “He’s got relationship issues and trust issues and betrayals. But the fun of being at Showtime is we never have to sanitize it, so he’s screwed a lot of people. That’s part of the delicious, dramatic journey that we take with him.”

Mike Kelley, the creator of “What/If,” sees the journey one follows with a 1 percenter protagonist (or antagonist) as both cutting-edge and eternal. He says he based Zellweger’s character, the vengeful vulture capitalist Anne Montgomery, in part on Darth Vader and in part on “The Graduate” icon Mrs. Robinson. In keeping with a pulpy series that presents Anne, at least at first, as a monster created and warped by money, both source characters are fueled by rage and a will to power that gets fulfilled, or not. “The haves and have-nots — it’s evergreen,” Kelley says. “Every time there’s some sort of advance made by anyone that’s not in power, there’s a backlash.” Little wonder Anne is so jealously protective of her corner of the market: She’s fighting a battle that’s getting harder by the day. “It seems to be lasting a lot longer and getting worse,” Kelley says of the distrust between members of disparate social classes. “Maybe that’s what’s zeitgeisty about it. The fear and loathing.”

“We’re at a time with a big gap between the rich and the poor, and the big difference between then and now is that … now they do get their comeuppance.”
Josh Reims, “Dynasty” showrunner

But if viewers loathe these characters, they certainly don’t fear spending time with them: “What/If,” for which viewership numbers have not been released, was in some avenues of social media a meme machine after its May release, while “Big Little Lies,” “Billions” and “Succession” are to varying degrees legitimate hits among critics and consumers alike. All have been noteworthy, too, for their ability to depict the toll the climb has taken. On “Big Little Lies,” the ostentatious Renata is fueled by her desire to avoid returning to the poverty of her youth, a motivation, perhaps, that spurs her Season 1 abuse of the less highborn Jane (Shailene Woodley). On “What/If,” Anne toys with, torments, funds and attempts to disembowel the humble Lisa (Jane Levy); her enmity has deep roots that stem in part from Anne’s own modest beginnings. “Billions” has built an ongoing rivalry between the world-beating Axelrod and a (relatively) proletarian attorney for seasons (Paul Giamatti). And the sociopaths of “Succession” are destabilized by the naive and provincial Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun). At their most effective, the current wave of shows about the wealthy level the playing field, restaging a culture war both on screen and off, as we watch the rich destroy themselves. Along the way, we may meet characters whose financial situations look a little bit more like ours, but the crushingly human vanities and anxieties of the rich antagonists end up in a surprisingly universal place.

It’s a story whose details can be updated for the moment — from the private jets of “Succession” to the tech-inflected fortunes of “Billions” and “What/If”— but that picks at the embarrassment of living in a society that demands all its participants, even and especially the rich, scramble for their place. What a relief to not have Renata’s or Anne’s or the Gemstones’ issues, and what glee we experience in watching them. The only thing that differentiates the people on either side of the screen is a number in a bank account. As McBride, describing his desperate, scrapping, materially wealthy but spiritually bereft objects of humor, puts it: “The comedy remains the same. Because at its core it’s about people and our ability to mislead and be selfish no matter our social class.” That most viewers have not yet been given the opportunity to mislead and be selfish on such a grand scale is the comfort, and the delight, “Gemstones” and its ilk provide.  

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