From the halls of “Downton Abbey” to the flip phones of “Gossip Girl,” depictions of dramatic glitz and glam has long been a tradition on screen — though, these days, one is less likely to find nail-biting tea time and more likely to see Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) rapping in a baseball jersey at his father’s formal birthday party on “Succession.”
With the presidential term of millionaire Donald Trump, college admissions scandals of the ultra-rich, a new series from the Kardashians and a wealth gap that’s doubled from the ‘80s to the 2010s, it’s perhaps no surprise that “Succession” and “The White Lotus,” two television series that critique the white and wealthy, have received the most Emmy nominations this season. Shining a light on rich white privilege, the shows prove that this class of people is one that American audiences want to see more of — or, more specifically, make more fun of. However, with the lack of diverse representation, it’s hard not to ask if this is the direction television should be headed.
Satirized opulence paints an unenviable picture of the one percent; it’s a classic case of schadenfreude that makes for addicting, cathartic viewing among a disillusioned American audience. Just as traditional rags-to-riches stories aim to inspire American dreams of upward mobility, “Succession” and “The White Lotus” argue that wealth at its extremes often leads to only the worst, suggesting that a lesser economic position might actually be a happier one.
These series dive not only into wealth, but also the relationship between white privilege and affluence. The juggernaut Roy family and the White Lotus resort guests are unable to acknowledge their privilege, making for disturbingly hilarious events that depict their insularity as a tangible byproduct of their wealth.
In one such moment on “Succession,” bumbling cousin Greg and his misguided mentor Tom discuss Greg’s principles after he’s promoted to the Roy family’s ethically questionable news outlet. When Greg shakingly names his first principle as, “I’m like, against racism,” Tom blusters, “Bullshit! I’m against racism, everybody’s against racism! … Man the f— up!” While Greg initially acknowledges his discomfort, his hesitation is quickly squashed by the realization that, in the Roys’ world, there is no concern for issues such as racism — there is only upward “manning up” mobility.
There’s a sense that these shows — helmed by primarily white producers — act as awkward, partly performative self-acknowledgments of Hollywood’s predominant whiteness, especially after social movements such as #OscarsSoWhite and Black Lives Matter. By pairing whiteness with the one percent, an already alienating class, the genre serves up a critique that goes down easy for a majority middle class audience.
Thus, the white wealth satire has become the perfect solution for white filmmakers in Hollywood post-#OscarsSoWhite. In an interview with Vulture, “The White Lotus” creator Mike White notes that the discussion of who can tell what stories is critical, but he also admits, “Obviously, it would threaten me in some way! Because this is all I can do!” The white wealth satire serves as a bypass to the demand to tell more diverse stories: by turning the lens inward, creators such as White can continue to write stories they’re familiar with without sacrificing the spotlight. Inevitably, this leads to a potentially entertaining satire that critiques whiteness but feels limited in substance.
While “The White Lotus” and “Succession” do showcase people of color, they fail to dive deeper into their characters. In “Succession,” Lisa Arthur (Sanaa Lathan), a Black female lawyer who conducts damage control with Kendall’s often ludicrous legal demands, is fired after claiming that Kendall continuously undermined her during a meeting. While this storyline hints at the prejudice that women of color face in the workforce, the potential for a deeper narrative leaves alongside Arthur.
In reference to diversity critiques, Strong, the actor who plays Kendall, said, “Our show is about a white family of billionaires, media moguls. There are some things we can do on the show and there’s some things we can’t.” This white-wealth-satire formula is allowed to sidestep diversity demands under the claim that including significant characters of color would fracture its carefully crafted depiction of whiteness and wealth. It is a resolution that feels far less like an artistic declaration and far more like a resignation. Why can’t Jess, a Black woman and one of Kendall’s trusted confidantes, grow tired of his antics and move to flip sides with her valuable inside information? Any of these shows could dive into what happens when people of color gain power in these elite spaces — but they don’t.
Both “Succession” and “The White Lotus” offer interesting and even entertaining critiques on the lives of the white and wealthy, but when these pieces begin to be mass produced, widely nominated and highly awarded, the white wealth satire show has the potential to be solidified as Hollywood’s favorite formula for progressive prestige dramas — a dangerous precedent that only allows space for white creators. There must be more possibilities for characters of color that don’t detract from these highly focused critiques. If not, it’s hard to foresee a future for a genre that insists on operating in such a narrow orbit.