The Riches of the Small Screen

When examining the popular tv shows of the past few decades a common theme, for a lack of better wording, is “rich”. While the premises of these shows may vary, there is a commonality rooted in wealth. For as long as we can remember, television show makers and viewers have held an infatuation with the stories of the obscenely rich. From the scandal-ridden lives of the Carrington’s in the 80’s television show ‘Dynasty’ to the glitz and glam of New York City in ‘Gossip Girl,’ production companies have glamorized the lives of these high society individuals. Viewers were drawn to the allure of magnificent wealth and intrigued by the otherworldly predicaments of these characters.

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Tv shows are seen as an escape from reality, we want to see the lives of people different from ourselves. As we watch these shows, just for a moment, we could picture ourselves at a lavish party on a rooftop, sipping on a martini, and contemplating a trip to Monaco or Saint-Tropez to escape the hustle of our Manhattan home. When we are brought back to our living room couch, we might leave thinking, ‘That kind of life wouldn’t be too bad, huh?.’ 

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On the surface level, television is simply a means of entertainment and escapism, however, it also has the means to shape our thinking. The way characters are portrayed and how stories are told have an impact on the viewer, whether they notice it or not. Specifically, when looking at the shows following the lives of the uber-wealthy. These lifestyles are seen as something unattainable to the average viewer and are shown to a standard that seems superior to our own “mundane” lives. The sheer unrealistic nature of these shows, produced in such abundance, can serve to create a more detrimental view of society and promote notions of elitism. The premises of these shows are planets away from the society we experience. The characters do not face the consequences of the socioeconomic or political climate of the ‘real’ world, nor do they interact with problems outside their upper-class circles. While these shows can be viewed as pure fiction, it is human nature to subconsciously compare ourselves to the other – whether than be through the way we look or the lifestyles we lead. Thus viewers are left striving for an unattainable standard, devaluating our own place in life.

Succession - HBO Series - Where To Watch

However, in recent television shows such as ‘Succession’ and ‘Billions’, show makers created a dichotomy in the portrayal of these obscenely rich characters. This refreshing, or rather grotesque, take on the lives of rich people align more closely with the societal views of the wealthy. The intent of shows like ‘Succession’ is not to glamorize the lifestyle of wealthy people, but to show a more unsettling view of wealth. The thing that sets these shows apart from conventional “rich” shows like Gossip Girl, Dynasty, and Downton Abbey is their lack of focus on the actual money. After stripping away the extravagance and the grandeur of wealth, we are solely left with the questionable actions and personalities of these characters. This harsher and more honest portrayal of characters gives the viewer a more human representation of wealth. However, it is ironic that the only way to make these wealthy individuals seen more human and relatable is to strip them of humanity – showing the ugly side. From the cinematography to the setting to the wardrobe choices, the show is made to portray the raw and slightly disturbing lives of these characters – turning wealth into something that is no longer enviable by any means. It is presumptuous to assume that the rich are either extremely indulged in their glamorous lifestyle or corrupted to the point of dehumanization. But, it is important that the television industry broaden its scope to show both sides of the spectrum of wealth.

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These shows do not discredit the comfort of having money but aim to expose the vices that come along with such wealth. In a capitalistic society like the United States, we see individuals go on to make unfathomable sums of money. The mechanisms that allow people to get this rich have come under intense scrutiny from government officials and activist groups. Numerous headlines about billionaire scandals from Zuckerberg to Trump show up on the daily, leading to more conversation regarding the billionaire class and its ethical implications. A more realistic representation, straying away from the glamor of wealth, could be a vital factor in helping people understand issues like the ever-growing wealth gap.

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Money is the foundation of most political and sociological agendas and people’s view on money weighs heavily on policymaking. Television is an important medium for influencing public thought, the narratives set forth through tv shows and films have an impact on people’s opinions. Having an accurate representation of upper-class figures on screen can help people better understand the society we live in, rather than warping their perception of it. 

6 thoughts on “The Riches of the Small Screen

  1. Hi Preethi!
    I really enjoyed reading your post. It is so important that we acknowledge the power television has as a form of media. As you touched on, shows and movies are much more than a form of entertainment, they are major influencers on society. TV shows in particular have the ability to shape our thinking, impact our beliefs, values, morals, and even hopes and goals. I’m glad you brought up both sides of the coin when talking about shows like “Succession”, “Billions”, and “Gossip Girl.” These shows can depict a level of wealth that may cause viewers to strive to unattainable standards, but they also illustrate an unsettling, undesirable aspect of money. I watched “Succession” over winter break with my brothers. To my shock, my little brother would make comments like “I wish we were more like them” or “I want to be Logan Roy when I grow up.” I was dumbfounded (and slightly worried) about my brother’s aspirations. He failed to notice how selfish, cruel, and downright screwed up the Roy family dynamic is. To me (and hopefully to a lot of other viewers,) the dynamic of the family (so cut-throat, manipulative, and unloving) made the wealth seem no longer enviable. I really like that you talked about how TV shows aren’t only glamorizing wealth, but also showing the worrying, unwanted side of it.


  2. I really liked how you addressed impact that TV has on our own perceptions of wealth. As much as I enjoy TV for the escapism aspect, I feel like more realistic portrayals of wealth would help people to reflect on the world they live in. As someone who’s family didn’t have a lot of money growing up, I find that even beyond exhibitions of ultra-wealth in TV, there are also generous assumptions made on the American middle class especially when it comes to TV that targets children. Shows like “Victorious”, “iCarly”, “Good Luck Charlie”, “KC Undercover” all reach a wide audience on young viewers, and, despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans don’t have access to the resources, space, wealth etc that the main characters have, their lifestyles (three story apartments in Seattle, a house in Los Angeles, suburban financial security) are understood to be the American Middle Class. These shows communicate the existence of a–false–sense of financial security that leads to feelings of insecurity among the financially disadvantaged children that view these shows. Creating shows that represent the viewing audience in terms of wealth will help children to feel less alone and also help them to understand their situation as they get older.


  3. Preethi, I absolutely loved this outlook on television shows that feature the portrayal of people who lead uber-rich lifestyles. Personally, I watch TV shows that are a little more parallel to a “normal life” or shows that are around the science fiction realm. However, I do see advertisements/trailers for these shows all the time and they tend to peak my interest just a bit.

    I wonder how much these TV shows impact today’s generation. When I think about quarantine and the effect that it had on many people having time to binge-watch shows or spend extended periods of time on social media it really pushed the narrative of “grind culture.” Having all these shows portraying characters and the lives of people who live in luxury could have a detrimental effect on society. Not that it is inherently bad/good to be a part of grind culture, but while it does encourage entrepreneurship and determination, and hard work, there’s another side of it. Being constantly reminded of how much more your peers appear to be doing can have detrimental effects on someone’s mental health. I think we not only saw that during the first quarantine, but we are still seeing the effects of that now.


  4. I think that the differentiation of these shows also lies in the fact that they consist of several near-hour-long movie-quality episodes per season, which adds to the immersion of viewers. There is a certain duality in this immersion: the viewers are immersed to the extent that they can see the grotesque reality of wealth illustrated by the show writers, yet they still choose to immerse in a vicarious way.

    In finance, it’s a common joke to say that an intern or prospect (although I myself am only an intern) will attempt to cold call a firm in hopes of scoring an interview only because they just watched a season of “Billions” that week. The joke has stuck in the industry because more often than not, the prospect will freeze up and stutter when simply asked what services they think the firm actually offers. This coincides with your comment that the strongest driver of a viewer’s interest here is simply placing one’s self in the lives of these TV characters without paying the slightest attention to meaning (in this case, the critiquing mirror held up by the show writers).


  5. Preethi, thank you for a wonderful article. I agree with your main premise that television can have a huge impact on how we perceive the world – and especially how we perceive parts of society that we are not accustomed to. However, I would say that there is typically an understanding with television that a lot of what occurs is fictional; it’s make-believe. Having watched Succession, I can say that it is as much an escape from reality as you claim. So many of the characters act without any real-world consequences, even when they are out of the social net of their own wealthy family. The problem for me is not that these consequences don’t make sense (because they often don’t), but rather that the show glorifies their actions and makes it seem like they can be good people, when really none of them are. Thank you for your thoughts!


  6. Preethi, thank you for sharing this article with us—it was an excellent invitation to consider the role of representation and television in shaping and interpreting reality, something that can be hard to navigate. When consume television, it always seems as though we’re encouraged to view it as “an escape from reality,” something you touched on in your article. But you go on to articulate how television is not fully separate from reality, and the consequences it can have on our realities. The way we see ourselves portrayed in media definitely has an effect on the way we see ourselves going about our daily lives, and you showed us that the same is true of rich people. In a moment where the general public is both obsessed with wealth and extremely critical of the wealthy and the harm they bring to the general public, it makes sense to see a shift in how the rich are portrayed in television. What is perhaps the most interesting to me, though, is the fact that stories about the rich are still incredibly popular, no matter whether they portray their characters as esteemed patrons of high society or evil overlords of the hungry masses. What does this say about how ordinary people view their own lives? Or is it perhaps because many people who are successful in the film industry and as writers are rich themselves, and these are the stories they know how to tell? Is it an intense hatred or jealousy that drives our consumption? Or, like your brother, does much of society still long to one day live the lives of the people they see on screen? Your piece raised many questions for me, and a conversation that seems important in this particular era of heated class politics.


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