The many aspects of wealth have been frequent fodder for dramatic Emmy contenders. Recent entries including Netflix’s “Ozark” and “The Crown,” and HBO’s “Succession” and “Big Little Lies” are prime examples. But does this current time of such deep socioeconomic division change the way creators approach depicting those either with extreme wealth or those who are pursuing it?
“I think the aim is to try to give a true representation of the lives these wealthy and powerful people live,” says Jesse Armstrong, creator and showrunner of “Succession.” “Some of the stuff money can buy is ugly, some is beautiful. I think you’d feel our finger too much on the scale if the show was insisting wealth did or didn’t make you happy. We just want to take a hard look at this world.”
The Roy family of “Succession” stands in stark contrast to the Byrde family of “Ozark.” The latter is led by Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney), who are laundering money for a drug cartel. Their family is not able to indulge in the excesses afforded the Roys for reasons of safety and the illegal source of their income. Yet the two families are similar in that they are willing to do anything to build or maintain their respective businesses.
“Ozark” showrunner Chris Mundy says that he feels depictions of wealth are usually aspirational, but Marty is not driven by the pursuit of such wealth. Instead, Marty is driven by his “intellectual hubris” as well as a desire to provide the security that money would bring for his family.
“The Byrdes illuminate aspects of the American Dream,” Mundy says. “I think some of the things we want to play on are the ideas of when people look at great families, do they really care where the fortune started or not? Does the American Dream care about how it came about or is it just about the end result?”
Such shows as “Big Little Lies,” “Succession” and “The Crown” also demonstrate how the places the wealthy inhabit, from the seaside town of Monterey, high-rises in Manhattan and Buckingham Palace, respectively, can be nests of violence and dishonesty. Generational wealth can further complicate matters, as it comes with a set of expectations not only about the quality of life on which such characters rely, but also with parameters on how at least the eldest children must behave.
Logan Roy’s kids Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Connor (Alan Ruck) must constantly battle for their place in their father’s orbit. Meanwhile, Kendall also must grapple with raising his own young children in such a harsh environment.
In the case of the house of Windsor on “The Crown,” the family must stay together not only for its own good but for the good of the nation even when members are at each other’s throats.
“On a show like ‘Succession,’ it’s built into the DNA of how those kids grew up,” Mundy says. “That’s really interesting and they’re doing an awesome job of showing that. For us, it’s not even first generation yet. Marty and Wendy didn’t grow up with it. Their kids didn’t realize they had any money. They had a nice middle-class existence in their mind. Right now, they’re still trying to get out of all this crisis and then figure out where they are as a family.”
With crisis and disparity seemingly becoming the norm in our society, do not expect deep ruminations on these subjects via premium dramas to abate any time in the near future.