The moneyed elite are wreaking havoc on shows such as Riverdale, The Good Fight and Dear White People but their motives have received a Trump-era update
Ever since Ebenezer Scrooge grumbled his first bah humbug, popular fiction has cultivated a healthy distrust of the moneyed elite. Painted as tight-fisted and almost wholly devoid of compassion, titans of industry have long provided pop culture with serviceable villains, most often contrasted with everyman protagonists. But on television, the year to date has seen a spike in this practice, and whats more, a honing of the archetype into something more pointedly critical. By the time Dickens was done with him, Scrooge had found his salvation; the Richie Riches of today often get no such sympathy.
Theres a satisfying irony to the fact that film and television, the two forms of media most dependent upon wealthy benefactors, have most frequently taken aim at the uppermost crust. Bighearted family pictures of the 30s and 40s regularly targeted the men in charge the bankers, factory owners, permanently frowning corporate types. The totemic image of George Bailey emerging triumphant over the towns cold-blooded moneylender at the close of Its a Wonderful Life, for instance, spoke to an America licking its wounds from the depression and second world war. Slobs-versus-snobs comedies were the studios bread and butter during the latter half of the century, pitting a collection of lovable losers against the prim and proper fobs from the rival team/camp/fraternity. TV got in on the fun as well, structuring countless programs around the pleasures of gawking at the bad behaviors of the one per cent. Everything from Dynasty to Gossip Girl has made an indulgent meal of luxury.
Both shows are now experiencing a second coming, of sorts: Dynastys got a revival series in the works, and the CWs Riverdale essentially transplants the Upper East Side teens into a fictitious Pacific north-west lumber town. Known colloquially among its fanbase as HAWF, or Hot Archie Who Fucks, Riverdale reimagines the comic book exploits of Archie, Betty, Veronica and their gang as a steamy and scandalous teen soap. A murder in town guides the development of the shows central plot, and of course all clues lead back to a pair of old-money families. The dueling patriarchs the maple syrup baron Cliff Blossom and the absent yet menacing Hiram Lodge fit right into the mold of tyrants past. Blossom nearly makes the Dallas comparison himself, boasting in one scene that syrup is thicker than oil.
An eclectic myriad of current shows all suggest that nefarious qualities arent just incidental, but a necessity for the acquisition and retention of wealth. The corporate climate rewards duplicity, deception and self-interest; Bernie Madoff, portrayed by Robert De Niro as the subject of this months HBO original movie The Wizard of Lies, fleeced the American people for billions as soon as he realized that all it took was the willingness to do so. The most sinister figure in the widely reviled Iron Fist would be Harold Meachum, a you guessed it gazillionaire industrialist willing to breach any ethical boundary to secure his grip on his fortune. Its a real chicken-egg situation with both men: their respective shows leave it torturously ambiguous as to whether the wealth curdled their souls, or they sank to the requisite level to achieve it.
Netflixs series-length extension of the campus satire Dear White People offers a more direct perspective on wealth and the people who hold it. Justin Simiens program remorselessly vilifies the legacy cases on campus, but posits that villainous nature as a fundamental symptom of the entitlement that accompanies status. The show digs a bit deeper by aggressively interrogating the institutional factors creating that wealth and the deleterious effects it has on the people who hold it (and in turn, the people unable to avoid dealing with them). Animal House blew raspberries at the campus thinkers with magnificent stoopidity, but Dear White People sees the value in what the characters refer to as unpacking, the process of fully analyzing the sociocultural motivators at play in a charged interaction.
Of course, Trumps shadow is cast over every program that exposes the bullying egotism behind fiscal empire. The Good Fight dares to speak his name, early and clearly, when the pilot episode uses his inauguration as the event that incites our gal Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) to set out on her own and join a new, more righteous law firm that, and a Ponzi scheme carried out by a traitorous business acquaintance. Like the aforementioned programs, the show never makes the parallel between Trump and the shyster because it doesnt need to. Whether accusatory or more subdued, the subtext remains the same, and now its been inflated to a size that cant be ignored. Its a shameful thing, to be rich in America; nobody climbs that high without resorting to something seriously unsavory.
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