Billionaire Season

For the super-rich, 2021 has been casting lots of shade—from the Sackler family’s weaseling out of any accountability for opioid deaths to the Pandora Papers’ exposure of billionaires’ offshore and domestic tax havens. We had reminders of how America’s richest families keep that “super” before the “rich”—like with tax loopholes allowing them to pass vast sums of wealth down to their heirs by avoiding capital gains taxes. We also learned from the New York Times that in the homes of the very wealthy, many recognizable postwar kitchen appliances are now being hidden within bespoke cabinets—that is, a regular person couldn’t find the fridge chez Cher.

And yet after Democrats failed to get the votes for a corporate income tax hike to pay for President Biden’s infrastructure and social spending bill, they are also unlikely to pass a proposed billionaires’ tax that would make the super-rich pay annual capital gains taxes on the value appreciation of their humungous assets. Sadly, I think the populist talking point that Americans are finally over billionaires is a myth. First, because many on the center-left are pro-billionaire; but more importantly, because of the endurance of a more formidable myth about money and power in Anglo-American culture.

It’s true that the poor are invisible to middle-class eyes (as Orwell said, “We despise beggars because what they do is not profitable”), but the minute one of them acquires capital in excess, we can’t stop looking. In this spectacle of excess, we don’t care how ill-gotten the lucre, because the clock starts ticking once a person (usually male) absorbs that capital into the bloodstream of his family.

It’s probably fitting that The Crown once again won a slew of Emmys in September, because the mythologizing of billionaires originated in Britain. Europe had no shortage of monarchies in the second millennium, but there was only one Shakespeare—whether an individual or a collective branding enterprise. Shakespeare didn’t just tell compelling stories about the often dumb exploits of the British crown; he gave the principals poetic, almost otherworldly language. Since Shakespeare, the smartest and wittiest British writers have made people with power and money sound not just intelligent but masters of words. That’s why The King’s Speech was such a crowd-pleaser: within a historically heightened expectation of impeccable elocution and rhetoric, here was this guy who couldn’t get a word out. The royals may have horsey faces, but by God never should they stammer!

The Crown is much like The Sopranos in that both are about the workings of families that are powerful only within a circumscribed milieu. The Royals have no actual political power, and the Jersey Mafia at the end of the millennium was slipping into niche extortion and petty larceny. In both series, people do very bad things—and often make things worse when they try to fix a problem. At their opposing ends of the class spectrum, the characters are fallible and human, watching their worlds become smaller and smaller.

The HBO series Succession is also about a family whose members do very bad things, but that’s about all it has in common with these two icons of prestige TV. That’s because running a global enterprise with a valuation in the trillions makes a family powerful in a boundless way. That monarchical power that shifted to Britain’s aristocracy has been sitting squarely with the billionaire class for a few generations now. I find it fitting that Succession’s showrunner, Jesse Armstrong, is a Brit, because this series follows the Shakespeare formula to the letter: the more powerful you are, the greater your Wildean wit and verbal acuity (in addition to your style and panache). You could argue that these elements are crucial for a show to be worth watching, in the way that Bond villains have to be unbelievably brilliant cartoons. But you could also argue that going full Shakespeare on families like the Murdochs and Maxwells only maintains pernicious propaganda.

Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker profile describes the lengths to which Armstrong goes to make billionaire families sound rapaciously witty—hiring la crème de la crème of writers not to put words in his characters’ mouths but to tease out what he thinks actual billionaires would say. His hunger for structure beneath incomprehensible wealth is like a National Geographic filmmaker’s hunger for images of a snow leopard. There’s something almost reverent in Armstrong’s ideas of what makes someone authentically super-rich. It’s as if you had the perfect vocabulary for the sartorial élan of the late Charlie Watts and wanted desperately to use it on Rupert Murdoch. I suppose you could do that, but most of us know that many of the super-rich are dull, shallow, saggy old men in track suits, and above all favor the repartee of a blunt instrument.

Succession makes populist reality shows like Real Housewives seem quaint in the scale of their principals’ cringe-worthy pursuits. Armstrong’s show is decidedly for the educated viewer—a demographic that enjoys pretending it’s simply addicted to this soap opera with expensive toys but in all likelihood is taking a lesson: Remember this in case you enter the satellite of the super-rich and need to impress them.

So the question is: Are this show and Billions (the Dallas and Dynasty of the post-fossil fuel era) really critical of the super-rich, or do they merely impose an Evelyn Waugh template on the global wealth that has superseded social class as a way to determine what we envy in one another? All I know is that when push comes to shove, the prestige-TV class of Americans is willing to cut them the lion’s share of slack. §