Revolt Against The Rich? ‘Gossip Girl,’ ‘Elite,’ More Deal With Changing Audience Opinions of the Uber-Wealthy
Jordan Cahan and David Caspe, creators of Showtime’s dark period comedy “Black Monday,” were watching the 1987 Charlie Sheen headliner “Wall Street” when they realized that there was no limit they could reach in a fictional playground of deep pockets.
“Michael Douglas won a best actor [Oscar] for this movie that was billed as a drama, yet his character has a robot butler and he says things like, ‘Lunches are for suckers!’” Cahan recalls. “Looking back, we immediately were like, ‘This silliness is indicative of that era of excess,’ and we felt like we could make fun of that.”
The selfish, high-stakes world of stockbrokers let Cahan and Caspe stretch how far their characters would be willing to go for money.
“Black Monday” is part of a wave of shows that, with a wink and a nod, possess a certain self-awareness of what it means to be a person of wealth and immense privilege in this day and age, warts and all. Among them are also HBO Max’s “Made for Love,” Netflix’s “Elite” and HBO’s “Succession,” which weave darker narratives of the capitalist dream.
Meanwhile, HBO Max’s upcoming “Gossip Girl” continuation endeavors to avoid glorifying its characters’ wealth and exorbitant lifestyles. While the attitude of the audience when watching TV series about wealthy characters used to be that their lives and worlds were aspirational, the tone of such content is shifting to keep up with modern concerns. Having wealth and privilege is not inherently a good thing — rather, it is using that wealth and privilege, and the power that comes with those things, in positive ways that is most important.
“These kids wrestle with their privilege in a way that I think the original didn’t,” says “Gossip Girl” showrunner Josh Safran. “In light of [Black Lives Matter], in light of a lot of things, even going back to Occupy Wall Street, things have shifted.”
Unlike Chuck Bass, the “Gossip Girl” crew of 2021 is aware of income inequality. They take Ubers, not limos. They’re (mostly) not rude to service workers. And Zoya Lott, played by Whitney Peak — the new iteration of the grounded, middle class, fish-out-of-water Dan Humphrey — is a scholarship student at the upscale Constance Billard school, the implications of which will be explored in nearly every episode.
“I think the first [‘Gossip Girl’] showed a little bit of wealth porn or privilege porn, like, ‘Look at these cars, or here’s a montage of the best plated food you’ve ever seen,’” says Safran.
In the age of Instagram, accessing images of fantastical wealth isn’t so hard anymore. The aspirational aspect this time around, he says, will be “more in wanting to be like the characters and less having what they have. Also, looking at it through Zoya’s eyes, you get a little bit of, ‘Careful what you wish for.’”
In “Elite,” the class war between the scholarship students and the upper-crust teens is one of the show’s central elements. Balancing that, says creator Carlos Montero, is “like any soap opera — it’s showing that the rich can suffer too and have a hard time, and it’s always something you can relate to.”
But he doesn’t believe viewers’ attitudes toward on-screen affluence has changed too much, as the wealth gap between rich and poor in real life only widens. “I think it’s a very juicy subject matter to explore because we all wish to be them in spite of hating them,” Montero says.
For Cahan, it was important to use “Black Monday” as a vehicle to display how greed corrupts and to portray how damaging it could be. “It’s not like we’re some moral fable or anything, obviously,” he says. “But in Season 3 we wanted to see the sins of the past come back to haunt our characters who made mistakes all in search of money and power.”
While Seasons 1 and 2 focused on the thrill of getting one over people, Cahan thought it was vital that the latest season depicted the trail of fire and ash left in the wake of the cash-corrupt.
“Watching shows like ‘Succession’ is both toxic and also intoxicating, ’cause you’re like, ‘Man, these are really bad people doing really bad things really badly.’ ‘Black Monday’ is more of a satire of the era, and our characters are almost ambitiously well-aware of what’s going on in their world then and now, so it felt like the perfect opportunity for a comedy like ours,” he says.
Safran separately notes that “Succession’s” characters, who get into petty fights about privileged things, have “all the wealth in the world, but it’s not photographed beautifully, meaning, that’s the point of that show: These people don’t have taste; they just have wealth. That’s [what’s] so smart about that show.”
While “Black Monday” looks to the past and “Gossip Girl” is strongly rooted in our present day, “Made for Love” feels set a few steps in the future by its way of all-encompassing technology. Starring Cristin Milioti as a wife on the run from her megalomaniacal and obsessive Silicon Valley hermit husband, Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), the show parodies the enormous amounts of wealth amassed by the tech elite while also highlighting how power in the hands of the few can be destructive.
“In previous generations, we used to say, ‘Oh, a doctor or a lawyer makes a lot of money.’ That feels passé now,” says author and executive producer Alissa Nutting. “The fascination with tech moguls draws from the fact that these people provide us with things that we have become completely reliant on while they remain distant in their ivory towers.”
“Made for Love” showrunner Christina Lee points to the extreme power imbalance between Hazel and Byron as one major way the series critiques digital monopolizers.
“We did a lot of research on women who married very powerful men — particularly women who did not have the same amount of power entering into that marriage,” Lee says. “We read into what we could discern from [their] interviews, which better informed our characters. There are always things about being rich that are going to feel exciting from an outsider’s point of view, but I think we’ll see more and more cases of money not being the answer to happiness on TV.”
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