Succession, White Lotus, and the New Satirization of the Ultra Wealthy
Written by Julia Brukx
November 13, 2022
The big winners at last month's Emmy’s were hardly a surprise. Jason Sudeikis's positive, upbeat Ted Lasso took home the comedy gold for the second year in a row. The limited series and drama trophies went to two glitzy, intellectual, auteur serieses from HBO, a network known for expensive, intellectual, auteur serieses. Mike White's The White Lotus, a searing satire circling a cast of wealthy guests at a luxury Hawaiian resort nabbed “Best Limited Series.” "Best Drama" went to the third season of everyone's favorite prestige drama Succession, which follows the life and crimes of the ultra-wealthy Roy family. Both shows have highly anticipated upcoming seasons with all-star casts, and are indicative of a larger trend in television.
Trends in media tend to reflect the populous. Why then, are two shows about the top 1% so popular in the era of the worst income inequality in decades? Why, after a pandemic and a mass resignation that left many people struggling from paycheck to paycheck, would audiences gravitate towards shows where the insanely wealthy throw away money like it's nothing? In Succession's pilot episode, Roman Roy rips up a check for $1 Million in front of a child, an over-the-top act of evil that shows how little the rich really care about the value of a dollar. Aside from the fact that Emmy votes and critic buzz don't accurately reflect the whole of the American audience - plans for HBOMax, where one can watch both shows, start at $10 a month, which, tacked on with all the other streaming services that seem necessary these, are simply out of the question for most people. Regardless, both shows have drawn large audiences and conversation, despite ruthlessly bullying a portion of their audience and alienating another by speaking in a language most of us will never be rich enough to understand.
The White Lotus's title is derived from the Greek myth of the Lotus eaters, characters in Homer's Iliad who indulge in luxury and pleasure and forget all about the practical concerns of the world around them. The show opens on a boat bobbing upon a beautiful sea, pulling up to a lush Hawaiian island with a waving staff eager to welcome them. Armond, the manager, whispers to his new trainee that they need to appear as vague as possible, because the guests would rather not think of the people behind the luxuries they enjoy. Each of the guests is a caricature of the wealthy-lotus eater ready to indulge in a week of pleasure and not give a thought to the people serving them. There's the Mossbacher family, made up of a She-EO girlboss and her compensating husband; their Nietzshe reading, side eye giving daughter and her friend who got to tag along on the vacation, and their awkward son. A pair of naive newlyweds, a Cornell graduate and his wide-eyed new bride, stroll onto the beach. Jennifer Coolidge's Tanya McQuoid, a woman grieving the loss of her mother, has become fodder for memes due to her character's extreme out-of-touchness. Despite the way she goes about life not even realizing the impact she's making, she seems to really care about everything that she can notice, which admittedly isn't everything. The show opens with a framing device; we know by the first scene that someone will end up dead, and thus the sequences of huge breakfast buffets and poolside cabanas are tinged with dread.
Succession is a King Lear fable centered around Logan Roy, patriarch of the Roy family and founder of the multi-billion dollar media conglomerate Waystar Royco, and his four adult children, each vying for the crown of the company as their aging father refuses to give it up. Each of the characters is the type that most would loathe in real life, but the show draws the viewer into caring for them, not by making them redeemable, but by making them utterly reprehensible. Kendall Roy, the heir apparent, is cowardly and noncommittal, trying to make big moves to make up for his lack of agency. Shiv Roy, a political strategist whose transition from high-minded liberal idealist to just another one of her daddy's pawns we get to watch across the seasons of the show, ruthlessly tells her husband after they get married that she may not love him. Roman Roy, the youngest sibling always waiting for a pat on the head when either of his elders makes a mistake, slinks around, sitting on tables and counters and peppering expletives into otherwise meaningless sentences. Connor, the only child from Logan's previous marriage, sits slightly on the sidelines, happy to collect his allowances that fund his farm and his sugar baby. In real time, we see the disastrous effects of their games of chess, the kind of things we scorn real people in positions of power about, and yet when they do it it's fine. It's drama. It's so far removed it can't possibly be real.
Though the characters are fictional, they are based on the real institutions that exacerbate trends in income inequality in the United States, and many viewers of these shows are not the ones seeing the good side of that. The Great Recession of 2008 shaped the modern US economy, reshaping attitudes towards saving, spending, debt, and investments, crumbling trust in financial institutions. The Great Recession also had a massive impact on the media. Shows such as Breaking Bad, which centers on a teacher unable to afford healthcare; Undercover Boss, a fantasy of unknowing CEOs rewarding struggling employees; and Parks and Rec, about long suffering government employees who can't get bailouts or funding for various efforts, emerge as crowd favorites. But among these, an opposite trend emerges: shows such as Gossip Girl, following the privileged teenagers of New York's Upper East Side; Big Little Lies, about wealthy moms in California; and The Crown, situated in the ginormous ornate rooms of Buckingham Palace, have also received acclaim in recent years. Just as in real life, on TV, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Succession and The White Lotus break every rule of traditional storytelling. Across the large ensemble casts of both shows, there is not one likable character. They are spineless, gross, unaware, at times purely evil, and yet people keep watching. Is it due to some fascination with their out-of-touchness, the same morbid fascination that turns necks towards car accidents? Is it so that we can laugh at how different they are from us, how morally superior we are for assuring ourselves that we are better? Is it pity? Or is it a longing to enter these hypnotic worlds and not have to care about everything in the same way?
Some people must feel something akin to pity for Kendall Roy, evidenced by the numerous edits of him placed against sad, self-loathing music. Mitski, Japanese-American singer-songwriter known for monopolizing upon this genre, is the most frequent choice for creators of these edits. When asked in an interview if she had seen any of these, she called it, "The best thing that's ever happened to [her] on the internet." An irony exists, however, that much of Mitski's music has to do with the experience of being a Japanese-American woman coming of age and coming to terms with her identity and her fractured approaches towards relationships as a result of her upbringing. Why, then, would they be relevant to a sad, 40-year-old man hoping to take over a multi-billion dollar company in a move that he has been expecting his entire life?
These shows also skirt an expectation of modern TV, and yet get scarce criticism for it: both of its ensembles are nearly all white. Because they are satirizing the white and wealthy, they largely don't get in trouble for not prominently featured non-white characters and, when they do, tossing them aside fairly quickly, because that is part of the joke on the subjects at play.
Both shows are distinctly set in their time, with Succession being a thin metaphor for the media conglomerates of the right, namely the Murdochs of Fox News. In a bone-chilling sequence, the high ups of Waystar Royco escape into a hotel room from a political conference and, with almost insulting carelessness, decide the next president of the United States. Sydney Sweeney's Olivia and Brittany O'Grady's Paula, The White Lotus's terrifying teenagers call Hillary Clinton a "neocon[servative]." A miscommunication ensues between Tanya and her possible love-interest when they have different meanings for the acronym BLM.
This year's Oscar slate is expected to reflect this trend. Ruben Östlund's scathing comedy, “Triangle of Sadness,” which is set upon a luxury yacht populated with the rich and unaware, took home the Palme d'Or this summer, the top prize at Cannes which boasts such previous winners as Parasite, another film about class disparity. The Menu, which arrives in theaters in November, follows a group of diners at an exclusive restaurant as they realize the evening might not be exactly what they had in mind. The sequel to 2019's Knives Out promises another all-star cast of fumbling idiots and, given the screw-you ending of the first film, a likely takedown of those who only seek more. Bodies Bodies Bodies, which came out this summer, features a line at the climax, when two characters are placed against each other in a paranoid frenzy, each waiting for the other to strike. One says to the other, "Your parents are upper middle class," pausing between each word for maximum punch. It is taken as an insult, with the recipient scrambling, "No they aren't!" This is making fun of rich people's, mostly teenagers and young adults, desire to appear as though they're not really rich, perhaps to escape the vitriol aimed at the top one percent or to justify always chasing more.
The White Lotus's second season premieres next Sunday. It transports a whole new set of guests to a luxury resort in Sicily and promises similar rich people doing similar rich people things. Succession's fourth season will premiere next spring, watching as the Roy family gets away with murder once again. On the news, the rich will continue to exert undue influence over society and the environment, and the majority of people will fall further into late-stage capitalism. And, each Sunday, those who can afford a $10 a month subscription, will tune in to laugh and cry as people whose biggest problems concern legroom on business class flights say that their lives are hard.