A successful playwright once said to me in a workshop that Australian plays rarely depict the lives of the rich and powerful. The underclass, yes (the plays of Patricia Cornelius, for example), and the middle class, absolutely (those by David Williamson, Joanna Murray-Smith, and countless others), but not the elite.
I’ve thought a lot about why this might be the case. Something in our blood, perhaps, a preference for social equality and a disdain for the pretentiously superior. Or maybe it’s a historical quirk, a legacy of the “ocker” Australian New Wave plays of the 1970s, which foregrounded an “authentic” (i.e. working class) Australian voice. Or perhaps it’s nothing more than a failure of the imagination, an unwillingness or inability to conceive of how the other half lives.
I don’t think American writers share the same blindspot, which should not surprise us given the deep ways in which the pursuit of wealth is enmeshed with that country’s idea of itself. Take, for example, the television it produces — not only routinely better than our own in every way (thanks, in part, to the vast amounts of cash poured into it), but also not infrequently about the lives of the moneyed, powerful, and privileged.
I’m thinking especially of two recent, critically-lauded examples: Succession and The White Lotus, the second season of which recently landed on Foxtel. Succession, the brainchild of British writer Jesse Armstrong, will enter its fourth season in March, and is loosely based on the various power struggles within the Murdoch media dynasty. Both seasons of The White Lotus — like Succession, a black comedy with satirical overtones — take place in luxury resorts and revolve around the foibles of a group of privileged guests.
Both series have been immensely popular with audiences and critics alike. Succession is frequently called “Shakespearean”. Certainly, like the films of another current critical darling, Martin McDonagh, it’s the writing that immediately stands out — piquant and distinctive where a lot of TV writing, even in the “prestige” space, is bland and generic, a means to driving the plot forwards and little else. Similarly, Mike White’s writing for The White Lotus is drolly caustic, inflected with camp and a keen sense of the absurdity of life in the leisure class.
Nevertheless, there are those who find these series unpalatable for precisely the same reasons I, along with hundreds of thousands of others, enjoy them. It’s often said that Succession is filled with unlikeable characters — it arguably is, which is partly the point — and that this is reason enough to switch off. More fundamentally, I’ve noticed a growing backlash to shows like Succession and The White Lotus based solely on the fact that they’re about rich people who do rich people things in rich people places. This, from a post by author and essayist Eirik Gumeny on the first season of The White Louts, is typical:
“. . . we got several hours of shitty, white, rich people being shitty, white, and rich. They acted like selfish assholes, like people who had long paid their way out of common decency, and suffered no consequences for their narcissism and pettiness. They were greedy and had an absolute disdain for the working class and that was it, that was the fucking show.”
Critics like Gumeny have a point, but I think they’re mistaken to argue that characters in shows like The White Lotus and Succession are reducible in this way. Writing in The Guardian, George Saunders described reading a story as a “slide into a state of uncertainty”. We begin by passing a simplistic judgement on a character, which feels superficially satisfying. Then, Saunders writes, “the story complicates matters . . . The initial judgement now seems facile. (‘What does this writer want me to think of this guy?’) We don’t know what we think. This makes us uneasy . . . we linger, trying to figure it out. (This tension is why we keep reading.)” And, indeed, watching.
While critics like Gumeny make the error of not moving beyond original judgements of character in light of new information, progressives have the similarly bad habit of projecting critiques of, say, class or race onto shows like The White Lotus and Succession because it makes us feel better about engaging with them. Ultimately, though, their politics is the politics of soap opera. What holds our interest — as Shakespeare would have appreciated, and Saunders’ essay implied — are the interpersonal dynamics, not the social commentaries.
This doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, invalidate our love of them. Line for line, Succession has probably the best dialogue of any TV show currently in production. That alone makes it worth watching, which is to say nothing of the superb ensemble cast or immaculate direction. Similarly, while the first season of The White Lotus touched on race and class, the second was no less compelling for its focus on the relationship between sex and power.
Let me be the first to say that extreme wealth and inequality are abhorrent. It’s obscene that 47.8 per cent of all the wealth in the world is concentrated in the hands of just 1.2 per cent of the global population. The super rich should not exist, and I would not want to watch anything which suggested otherwise or, worse, celebrated the fact that they do.
But I don’t think Succession or The White Lotus — or, come to think of it, The Menu, Glass Onion, or Triangle of Sadness — valorise the lives of the privileged elite they depict. If anything, they reveal them to be shot through with nihilism and joylessness, an insight which may be less than revelatory, but still one that should give us pause if we imagine that we’re being asked to (materially or morally) aspire to the lives and lifestyles of their more or less complex protagonists.
Search for “White Lotus” and “rich” on Twitter, and you’ll find the common complaint that these characters face no consequences for their terrible actions, as though all our media should pamper to the childish desire for the good guys to triumph and the “baddies” to get their comeuppance. Also, newsflash: “shitty, white, rich people” very often don’t face consequences for the awful things they do, which is just another thing money (and whiteness) can buy you in the real world.
After all, to interpret the “meaning” of TV drama or comedy as a sort of moral code would presumably be to render a great many shows unwatchable (not to mention tedious). The violence, cheating, and abuse which are staples of both trashy and prestige TV would make us turn off, which is to say nothing of the merely morally ambiguous. Such a lens would fairly obviously disqualify us from watching most of the major TV shows of the past 30 years, from The Sopranos, to The Wire, to Breaking Bad, the antiheroes of which typically display personality traits any right-thinking person would find detestable, if not intolerable, in a real-life human being.
It seems to me that viewing shows like Succession and The White Lotus with one finger hovering over the trigger of moral opprobrium doesn’t challenge black and white thinking about, for example, wealth and class — it reproduces it. It’s something of a dead end for critics and extremely online people to pronounce this or that media phenomenon, be it a TV show, film, or novel, simply pleasurable or well-made. It must speak to, and perhaps even for, the culture, be transformed from mere entertainment into grist for “the discourse”. Not only is this stifling but also, in the end, every bit as reactionary as critics of Succession and The White Lotus would have us believe shows like these are.
There is a lesson here not just in how to watch TV, but in how to live our lives away from the “idiot box” too.
Ben Brooker is a writer and critic based in Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. He is working on his first book, a cultural history of psychedelics in Australia.