TV

Succession eats the rich. Is it time British shows did the same? 

Succession, The White Lotus, Triangle of Sadness and The Menu: audiences can’t get enough of tearing strips off the rich at the moment. But with our own share of inequality across the pond, why aren’t dark comedies like this being made in the UK?

Succession

There is bitter competition between the Roy children in Succession. They are not enviable, but pitiable. Image: ©2023 HBO

Glitz and gold fringes are nowhere to be found in HBO’s Succession. Wealth is an ugly, grotesque beast as much as it is addictive and alluring. When Logan Roy (played with genius by Brian Cox) forced family members onto their knees and demanded they grunt like boars in season two, their lives shrunk to horrific but hilarious spectacles. Mocking and belittling its characters is a habit of the show. The Roys are not enviable. They are pitiable. 

Succession feasts on the rich, tearing their lives apart as they turn against each other and lust for power. The private helicopters and lavish holidays might be seductive, but no one with an ounce of morality wants to join the Roy family. We want to laugh at them and watch them fall apart: a true American dream. 

There is a ravenous appetite for jeering at the wealthy in popular culture. The White Lotus’s bumbling bunch of buffoons rile each other so much someone winds up dead. Netflix’s You took the obvious approach with an “eat the rich” killer, and the trope dominates film too. 

Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya and Jon Gries as Greg in The White Lotus. Fabio Lovino/HBO

The Menu serves up delicious satire about the art of elite eating, and Triangle of Sadness feeds its moneyed characters octopus tentacles before they slip on vomit and everything goes to pot (literally). But there is something about these films and shows, and their take on rich people, that feels very American. 

There is not a dark comedy quite like Succession or The White Lotus in the UK, or at least not one so successful. Wealthy English people are most often seen in period and costume dramas. There’s Downton Abbey’s utopian vision of benevolent landowners and their happy servants, or the beautiful Bridgerton world where rich people fall in love and race doesn’t matter. These are shows reflecting a dream society.

Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix
Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton. Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix

Besides, who needs the Roys when you’ve got the royals? The Crown is an engrossing drama about the scandals of the royal family, but you’re not going to see the Queen trip on her own vomit. 

“My feeling is that unless they are being presented through period and costume drama, which tends toward an above and below stairs contrast, there is less space now on UK television for the uber rich,” says Beth Johnson, a professor of television and media studies at the University of Leeds.

So why the frenzy around the rich getting their violent comeuppance in the US? “There are historical moments where it tends to come to the fore,” says Johnson. “They’re often not immediately in the wake of an economic crisis, but normally four or five years afterwards. They’re always working two years behind, so they’re constantly trying to predict the future.” 

The 2008 financial crash remains a vivid memory, and little has improved since. A billionaire buffoon if there ever was one, Donald Trump swooped to power with the promise he would fight the elite (as if he wasn’t a card-carrying member). There’s also been Weinstein, Epstein and the US college scandal

Who will end up on top? The Roy children in Succession. Image: ©2023 HBO.

“These shows and films are outlets for a pressure that has been around since at least 2008, that has taken political forms in various ways, but that still isn’t resolved and has in fact got worse,” says Mark Storey, an associate professor in American literature and culture at the University of Warwick. 

“The ‘middle class’ tends to be the people who make and watch these shows, and they’re the ones whose living standards are getting worse,” Storey adds. “They’re finding they’re aligned with working class people, whereas they used to try to aspire to the upper-classes.”

Succession fans will point out its creator Jesse Armstrong is British (and created Peep Show), but there’s no denying this is an American family saga, even if it is viewed through a British lens.

Greed and ruthlessness are part of the American dream: that insatiable desire to get to the top. Perhaps there’s something about this greed which feels vulgar through a British lens, making it even easier to scoff at the incredibly American characters in Succession and The White Lotus. Or maybe it’s that class is more deeply entrenched here, a part of our framework, and trauma comes with it. 

We certainly have our own share of inequality in the UK. Billionaires’ wealth has ballooned by £630 billion since 1990. Etonian buffoons dominate the cabinet, and we just sat through the coronation of a 74-year-old king draped in gold robes. Meanwhile millions of people are struggling to put food on the table for their families.

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Our response to this tends to be a focus on the wealth divide. While these “eat the rich” shows and films look into the horrors at the core of the American dream as people lust for power and control, culture in the UK tends to look at the British class system through the eyes of people ignored by the government and ruling classes.

Karen McNally, a reader in American film, television and cultural history at the London Metropolitan University says these “eat the rich” shows expose the myth of the US as a nation founded on the notion of a class-free democracy in which the possibilities for success are widely available. But in the UK, “class structures are arguably so embedded throughout the country’s history that they continue to be normalised”.

“The current wealth divisions therefore perhaps hold little interest either for TV writers or audiences as a topic for narrative debate or critique,” she says. “Hopefully this might soon change. As the US TV shows are demonstrating, there’s certainly plenty to say.” 

Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley. Image: ITV

But is it really time British television started to mock the rich? Instead, we have central leading characters with real strength, like Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley or Michaela Coel as Arabella in I May Destroy You. Underlying that is grief and pain with which audiences empathise. 

There’s no denying Succession is brilliant, and it is delicious to watch the elite squirm. But these shows and films are not trying to spark revolution.

“None of these shows and films really set out to change the system,” says Storey. “They just have a kind of despairing, weary horror as they fantasise about the rich getting their violent comeuppance. Maybe in that respect they’re foreshadowing something darker that is coming down the line: where politics and protest keep failing, people eventually use other means.”

There is beauty and nuance in UK film and television and its reflections on class. Maybe heartbreaking depictions of the pain and suffering of those on the breadline, and the emotional resonance we feel with this, will be a real catalyst for a better future – in the way 1966 BBC TV play Cathy Come Home kickstarted a conversation about homelessness and gave a huge boost to the charity Shelter.  

“Television doesn’t hold up a mirror to society,” Johnson says. “What television does is it shapes what we think society is and should be. It has this real political function.” 

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