TV’s Succession doesn’t skewer the 1% – it hoodwinks us into accepting the status quo | Martha Gill

Succession is back, sweeping portentously over New York’s skyline, reeking of money and menace. Like the very best seasons of The Real Housewives, it has everything: fabulous couture, looming mansions, smashing mini-breaks and the generous invitation to pity or despise almost all the characters in it.

Succession led the way, but since we last left the Roys in late 2021 there has been an explosion of “eat the rich” on screen. The rich have been skewered figuratively in The White Lotus and literally in The Menu. In Triangle of Sadness, the capsize of a super-yacht tumbled influencers and moguls to the bottom of the social hierarchy; in Glass Onion, a tech bro billionaire figure was dramatically relieved of his priceless art collection. There has perhaps never been a worse time to be a fictional oligarch. If you’re lucky, you’ll be merely miserable (your riches, you see, will have robbed you of everything that truly matters in life). At worst, you’ll be elaborately dead.

We should note, though, that, while we stick pins into them on screen, in real life oligarchs have never had it better. They’re getting richer, for a start. The net worth of the planet’s 10 wealthiest men doubled over the pandemic – one percenters are now on track to own two-thirds of the planet’s wealth by 2030. And while their scripted counterparts get their bloody comeuppance, in reality the rich are slipperier than ever. Tax avoidance proliferates. Judges still under-punish white-collar criminals. A story in the Guardian quotes a wealth manager who claims that the ability to stay unruffled by the flamboyant vices of clients has become an informal job requirement. The resurrection of Partygate last week reminds us that police spent the pandemic prowling park benches for erring commoners while ignoring the festivities raging inside Downing Street.

But then the screen rarely reflects the culture as much as its opposite. Between 2014 and 2019, for example, there was a fad for retelling classic stories from the villain’s point of view – Maleficent and Joker rehabilitated and humanised their wicked protagonists. But that coincided with the peak of cancel culture, a social custom that does quite the reverse: it specifically denies its victims any possibility of a redemption arc, while painting ordinary people as cartoon villains. Or take the rise of science fiction and fantasy, which has dominated western – but not eastern – cinema since about 1980. Sociologists have claimed this has a lot to do with the decline of religion. As westerners grew disenchanted with the church, they sought enchantment and awe in the cinema.

We should recognise “eat the rich” TV for what it is: not as any sort of cultural “reckoning” for the prosperous and corrupt, but pure catharsis – a sort of inverted mirror of society. The more violently a culture squishes the undeserving wealthy on screen, the more it tends to valorise them in reality. These TV revenge fantasies are similar to medieval traditions of misrule, festivals where hierarchies were reversed for a day. Fools became kings and insulted their social betters and low and high officials in the church swapped places – dancing backwards and reciting nonsense sermons.

Why did kings and church leaders tolerate this insurrection? It was a useful release valve through which to expend any rebellious impulses. Let the people indulge their fantasies of revolt for a day – then return, refreshed, to the normal order of things. Misrule didn’t really threaten existing hierarchies – in fact, it affirmed them. The chaos and “foolishness” of the ceremonies implied the superiority of the way things were usually run.

So it is with The White Lotus, Glass Onion and the rest. They offer us 99 percenters a Sunday evening outlet for any resentments we might feel, the better to return to our labours on the morrow. Far from challenging prevailing hierarchies, they slyly encourage us to accept them. Watching this sort of satire has a brilliantly soothing effect on any outrage we might feel: replacing it with a lovely feeling of superiority. How should one respond to the evil doings of the powerful? This sort of TV teaches us a weary smirk.

Part of the soothing is to reassure us, too, that we might actually be better off as we are: the lives of the wealthy, after all, seem dreadfully unpleasant. There’s something almost Huxleyish about this – the lower tiers of Brave New World’s caste system are taught little recitations to keep them happily in their place: “Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard.”

The rich are very unhappy, Glass Onion suggests, because they can’t trust their friends: everyone wants something from them. The rich are very unhappy, Succession says, because dynastic wealth divides families and turns them against one another. The rich are very unhappy, Triangle of Sadness says, because in the absence of real problems one becomes obsessive and petty. I suppose it’s just as well we’re not rich, then.

The sort of challenge this presents the rich and powerful can be read into the efforts of the hotel in which The White Lotus was filmed to assure visitors they will get the full treatment. “The resort’s real vibe is very much similar to what you see in the series,” the manager told reporters (in the series several of the guests are eventually murdered). Triangle of Sadness, meanwhile, got a standing ovation at an elite showing at Cannes – one of the world’s most opulent film festivals.

It is hard to make a film about the wealthy that is not also a bit aspirational – envy of the rich is, after all, the engine on which our societies run: they are shown off to prove the system works. No film-maker can resist a little lovingly shot lavishness. These shows suggest they will upend the status quo but leave it safer than ever.

Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent

Source of data and images: theguardian

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