I’m surprised the concept of “appointment television” even exists in the era of perpetual streaming, but every once in a while, a show enters the zeitgeist and doesn’t leave until all the episodes have aired. I guess we just like to be part of the conversation. And if there’s a candidate for the label right now, it’s definitely the new season of HBO’s rich-people-behaving-badly drama Succession, which ended its second season with a game-changing press conference (more exciting than it sounds), and has returned to best viewership numbers yet, according to HBO, anyway.
Succession is the darkly comic story of the Roy family, owners of media conglomerate Waystar RoyCo, and the chaos and backbiting that ensue when patriarch Logan (Brian Cox) suffers a stroke, prompting the family to begun fighting over what will remain after his inevitable demise. Prior to his medical incident, Logan has just given his third wife a say in his succession plans and elevated an estranged nephew to a position of power in the company, setting the stage for a (slightly less bloody) modern-day Game of Thrones scenario. It’s all very HBO.
Why should we care about what happens to these rich people and their evil company? Narratives about the ultra-wealthy being shitty or generally indifferent to the plight of us regular folk are common enough, but not inherently entertaining; we get enough of that in real life, thanks very much. Rich people being shitty to other rich people, though? That’s entertainment, and is very much the appeal of something like Succession. We live in a country in which a handful of people — no smarter, more virtuous, or hard-working than the mass of Americans — have more money than than god (practically speaking), so much that they have no idea what to do with it. If a TV show wants to tell us they are still miserably unhappy, well, that’s a shred of schadenfreude to cling to, anyway.
Some of these 18 series and movies border on wealth porn — the pleasure of watching people with nice clothes and fancy stuff who live in giant houses (I’m a Downton Abbey guy, so no judgements) — but most of them are about how the rich and powerful are at least as terrible as the rest of us, even if they have better shoes.
Veep (2012 — 2019)
What if the very worst people imaginable had control of all the levers of power in America? What would that be like? In this highly satirical and in no way politically relevant HBO series, Julia Louis-Dreyfus brilliantly plays Vice President (and later President) Selina Meyer: part feminist icon, part worst-case-scenario for the feminist dream. The cast of characters consists almost entirely of entitled rich people climbing over each other for infinitesimal extra bits of power while trying to appear as folk heroes to the rubes (aka us voters). It’s one of the funniest shows on TV, with the nastiest put-downs…if you can handle the fact that it also sometimes feels uncomfortably close to a documentary.
Where to stream: Foxtel Go, Google Play, Apple TV
The Big Short (2015)
Adam McKay’s award-nominated film, based on Michael Lewis’s non-fiction bestseller of the same name, dramatizes (and satirizes) the lead-up to the 2008 financial crash, telling the story of the hedge fund managers and traders who mastered the labyrinthine US banking systems, at least insofar as much as they could in order to foresee the coming collapse — and the potential to make a ton of money off of it, often fraudulently, by betting on and/or precipitating the disaster. Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, and Ryan Gosling play the main characters, finance guys who aren’t really brilliant or even necessarily smart, but who have figured out how to make money while lighting the match on a world primed to burn. McKay is also one of the producers on Succession, which tracks.
Where to stream: Netflix, Amazon Prime
Empire (2015 — 2020)
Terrence Howard leads a truly great cast (Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe, and Vivica A. Fox) in this juicy, glossy, hip-hop infused soap opera. The set-up is very similar to Succession, so much that it’s hard not to imagine that Empire’s success provided some of the impetus for the similarly buzzworthy HBO series. Howard plays Lucious Jackson (neé drug dealer Dwight Walker), who changed his own fortunes by building Empire Entertainment from the ground up. As the series begins, the music mogul is diagnosed with ALS and given a life expectancy of only a few more years. Refusing to watch his empire die, he sets his three sons at odds to determine who’ll be the one to control things when he’s gone. His schemes are complicated by the release from prison of Cookie Lyon (Henson), the co-founder of the company and Jackson’s ex-wife. As the kids say: drama!
Where to stream: Disney+
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Like a lot of entertainment involving the fantastically wealthy, there’s an uncomfortable tension between the need to skewer and the desire to revel in the opulence. We really want to see the amoral rich brought down a peg, and we also really want to look at their cool stuff beforehand. That tension is very much present in Martin Scorsese’s dramatization of the memoir by the real-life New York stockbroker and felon Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio, in the role that probably should have earned him the Oscar he finally got for being attacked by a bear). In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Belfort’s questionable (and then outright illegal) activities allowed him to live lavishly, and being party to that lifestyle is part of the draw. Luckily, Scorsese is too good a filmmaker to fall entirely into the trap of making us wish we too were rich and unscrupulous.
Where to stream: Netflix, Amazon Prime
South Korean TV and movie creators have no problem criticising the ultra-wealthy (Parasite and Squid Game are hardly outliers), particularly the plutocratic chaebol families who control huge portions of the country’s economy. Mine targets the women who are jockeying for control of the massive, fictional Hyowon Group from within their family’s outrageously opulent (and extremely photogenic) residential compound. The plans of the two increasingly powerful women who married into the family, Hi-soo and Seo-hyun, are thrown into disarray when the new housemaid begins a romantic relationship with one of the family’s male heirs, while a new tutor seems ready to expose old family secrets. It’s very much a Dynasty-style soap opera, with various family members crawling over each other seeking a sense of identity and control.
Where to stream: Netflix
The Thick of It (2005 — 2012)
The creators of Succession and Veep, Jesse Armstrong and Armando Iannucci respectively, collaborated on this political satire starring a pre-Doctor Who Peter Capaldi. The focus is on the government’s relationship with the media, with Capaldi’s foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker working to maintain a stranglehold on coverage of the British Prime Minister, to whom he’s loyal, and on any cabinet ministers who might get out of line. The characters aren’t rich to the degree that Succession’s Roy family is, but their jockeying for power in an uncertain world feels quite similar (and though it’s British, American viewers won’t find the politics all that foreign). Every character is as cynical as they are incompetent, making the casts of Veep and Succession seem loveable by comparison.
Where to stream: Stan, Apple TV
Industry (2020 — )
Industry isn’t concerned with a power struggle among people at the top of the ladder; instead, its focus is the fight to climb said ladder. The young wannabe investment bankers it follows would all love to be the terrible rich people from that other show. It’s what they dream of. The main characters come from a variety of backgrounds, but they’re all competing for a limited number of permanent positions at the fictional Pierpoint & Co., a London bank, and they’ll each do anything it takes to earn their shot at the big prize.
Where to stream: Foxtel Go, Apple TV, Google Play
Altes Geld (2015)
In this German-language import from Austria (also known as Old Money), Udo Kier plays Rolf Rauchensteiner, a billionaire industrialist who gets a grim diagnosis: he’ll be dead in a year without a new liver. It might not sound like much of a problem, but Rolf’s public high status makes it tough for him to acquire an organ illegally without the public catching on, and attempts to procure one legally invite various extortion attempts, both subtle and obvious. His solution? Make his kids do it: Whichever of his offspring can procure him a working liver gets the keys to the kingdom, with no need to share. These are not great people, as you might have guessed, and they all start clawing at each other to be the one to get the organ. It’s a sly, dark comedy about a different type of succession.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Adapted by David Mamet from his play, this movie takes place over two days at Premiere Properties, a cutthroat real estate firm. Alec Baldwin’s Blake is sent to “motivate” the team, composed of four salesman — a task he undertakes largely via verbal abuse. At the end of the week, only the top two salesmen will keep their jobs, and so all four are motivated (and increasingly desperate) to use any tactics, no matter how deceitful, to close the sales on the leads they’ve been given (for properties known as Glengarry Highlands and Glen Ross Farms). It’s a dark, brilliantly acted satire of the pressures of capitalism and the tolls it takes on those who suffer from within the system, even as they work to prop it up.
Arrested Development (2003 — 2019)
The set-up of this heavily memed sitcom is eerily similar to Succession, even if the vibe is more overtly comedic. George Bluth Sr., corrupt real estate developer, goes to prison at the outset of the series, which is mostly just an inconvenience to his family members, who have no interest in giving up their lavish lifestyles, even with the money tap run dry. Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) is the only one competent enough to take over the family business, and also the only one with any moral centre (though not much of one, tbh), but his efforts are undermined by his siblings and mother, who have no interest in or awareness of austerity. By keeping the family afloat, Michael is only enabling all of their worst impulses. During its original three-season run (if not its unfortunate Netflix revival), it was one of the funniest, most biting shows on TV.
Where to stream: Disney+
Games People Play (2019 — )
Based on Angela Burt-Murray’s bestseller Games Divas Play (a better title, imho), this show is something like a dramatized Basketball Wives, with Lauren London as a lawyer whose life is sidelined when her husband is drafted into a pro basketball team. She proceeds to dive headfirst into some of the less admirable aspects of the pro-sports lifestyle. Two other women, a reporter looking to rebuild her career and a groupie, fill out the show’s central power trio — three women fighting to build or maintain the positions they feel they’ve earned, surrounded by plenty of rich people behaving (very) badly who want to see them humbled.
Dynasty (2017 — )
I’d be much more inclined to go with the nine-season ‘80s original, truth be told, if only for the fashions and for the presence of some of the most impressive and iconic bitches ever to grace the TV screen (Diahann Carroll ftw). But given that it’s not free to stream anywhere and that the new one has proven to be pretty popular itself, I’ll get over it. Like its predecessor, this is more a guilty pleasure than a show with any kind of mission statement…and that’s OK! Mostly. There’s plenty of grappling and grasping among the Carringtons and their business rivals, especially when patriarch Blake gets engaged to Cristal, a woman with a shady past who has the potential to throw the family legacy into chaos.
Where to stream: Netflix
The Death of Stalin (2017)
Back to writer/director Armando Iannucci (Succession creator Jesse Armstrong’s collaborator on The Thick of It) for the highly satirized, but also kinda true, story of the jockeying for power that occurred in Soviet Russia upon Stalin’s fatal cerebral hemorrhage in 1953. It’s the rare comedy that ends with an immolation, and a perfect case study in the powerful behaving badly. All those in the leader’s orbit, through fear, avarice, or some combination of both, wrestle each other for power or survival, with very little regard for any of the big, world-changing ideas they’re supposed to be fighting for.
Where to stream: Stan
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
The abiding question raised by all of these narratives, and one that we see so often reflected in real life is: What’s the point? Why the obsessive and endless need for money and power, if they only serve exacerbates your own worst impulses and make you, and everyone around you, miserable? Do the Trumps ever seem happy? The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly (allegedly based on a certain former Vogue editor-in-chief) certainly doesn’t; her abusive behaviour towards her staff might win her sycophants, but it doesn’t earn her any friends. It’s Meryl Streep’s delicious performance that makes this woman fun to watch, but you sure as hell wouldn’t want to work for her.
Where to stream: Disney+
Billions (2016 — )
Billions doesn’t have quite the bite of Succession, but it’s also a bit more fun, with Paul Giamatti playing attorney Chuck Rhoades (based, a bit, on the real-life Preet Bharara), who is working to bring down shady hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). The tone, at least at the outset, is a bit lighter, and it plays like a darkly comic soap opera — but it’s also managed to stay fresh over five seasons by mixing things up now and again. The show also boasts the great Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor Mason, one of the very first non-binary characters in a major American TV series.
Where to stream: Stan
The White Lotus (2021 — )
There’s not much beating around the bush here, with the show’s opening flash forward making it very clear that things are not going to go well for at least some of the vacationers at the titular White Lotus property. The manager, Murray Bartlett’s Armond, makes clear to the staff that the ultra-wealthy guests are little more than overgrown children, and need to be coddled as such. At this very fancy resort, at which people have paid absurd amounts of money to be pampered, competitiveness and general toxicity ensure that everyone’s going to have a miserable time, no matter how much it costs them. Originally meant as a miniseries, the show’s success has laid the path for a new season with a different set of characters at another White Lotus property. Terrible rich people abound.
Where to stream: Foxtel Go
Queen Sugar (2016 — )
By tossing this in, I’m cheating a bit. It’s not really a show about rich people behaving badly (for the most part). It does, however, involve a succession crisis: three largely estranged siblings in distant cities are brought together by the death of their father, who has left them each an equal share in an 323.75 ha sugarcane farm in rural Louisiana. The Ava DuVernay-produced (and sometimes directed) series has plenty of scandal and soapy drama, but, ultimately, it’s about a family that comes back together to preserve the a legacy. So what’s it doing here? Consider it a corrective to all the other shows and movies about wealthy people doing bad — this one’s about less-rich people in a Succession-esque scenario trying not to be terrible. Imagine.
(I’m sorry if you feel cheated out of the full count of shows about horrible rich people, but that’s capitalism for ya.)
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