On television, money imbues characters with honor or shame, dignity or recklessness, charity or malevolence. While the black hat vs. white hat moral absolutism that once dominated the small screen has slowly dissolved into an ethically ambiguous world of pure-intentioned, pill-popping nurses and idealistic, philandering ad men and humble, meth-slinging chemistry teachers, these nuances are less often applied to matters of class. The very rich are either breathtakingly noble or downright nefarious, while the very poor are as self-destructive and helpless as injured baby animals.
It’s odd, then, that the one show that dares to burden its privileged heroines with both aggressively entitled and infantile urges of the urban elite would come under fire for focusing on rich white women. Forget the whitewashed, class-bound portrayals of every male-dominated TV show of the past half-century; HBO’s Girls, a comedy about the demeaning post-college years of coddled white girls, should shift its premise, its focus, and its tone in order singlehandedly to carry the banner of multiculturalism and class unity.
Yet it’s hard to think of a single TV show that approaches upper-crust decadence with as much transparency (and, at times, outright scorn) as Girls does. From the very first scene, Hannah (Lena Dunham) takes the shape of a self-satisfied, overgrown infant, slurping up pasta on her parent’s dime, while they steel themselves to inform her that they’re cutting her off financially. Her response? She pouts like a spoiled brat, protesting that all of her boho artist friends are fully funded by their parents and hinting that her entire life will fall to pieces without their support. Hannah’s friends, meanwhile, are exposed as overindulged and deluded. Hannah’s wealthy, egocentric friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke) delivers a rousing speech to her fellow nannies at a city playground about demanding fair pay and benefits—as her own two charges wander off unattended. Meanwhile, Hannah’s pretty roommate Marnie (Allison Williams) is disparaged for floating in an insulated bubble created by her good looks and her money. Her art gallery job smacks of parental connections, she’s treated with kid gloves by her adoring boyfriend, and her parents still pay her BlackBerry bill.
Hannah herself is often set straight by more sensible denizens of the regular working world: when she shows two coworkers at her office the photo her sort-of boyfriend sent her of his penis, the two women tell her she’s devaluing herself and should dump him immediately. This clash of post-elite-college idealism and working-world reality, playing out in the slightly shameful realm of condescending, training-wheels internships, lies at the heart of the show’s mission. It’s the reason it’s called Girls: drifting through the trust-fund-enabled, fun-seeking romper room of Manhattan and Brooklyn, these clueless children couldn’t be more out of touch with the rigors of the real world.
Somehow, though, while Girls generates controversy, Downton Abbey’s exaggerated portrait of upper-crust heroism smoothly sidesteps critical scrutiny. The British export, which has won PBS more viewers than might tune in for an average episode of Mad Men, takes dramatic moments of anger, love, and passion and replaces them with awkward silences, polite stuttering, and the same shots of vintage cars pulling up to the estate over and over again. But while Mary (Michelle Dockery) thinks better of telling Matthew (Dan Stevens) her true feelings and Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) decides against letting his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) know that her continued neglect has caused his eye to wander, their underlings engage in a steady stream of reckless and unsavory activities. Ethel (Amy Nuttall) the maid gets impregnated by a soldier, Daisy (Sophie McShera) the scullery maid marries a man she doesn’t love, and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) is found guilty (wrongly, we assume) of killing his wife. And then there are the ill-considered antics of Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the footman who purposefully gets his hand shot off so he’ll be sent home from battle during WWI, then begins an underground business selling flour and sugar to Downton Abbey only to get tricked out of his money by a shady supplier. He’s reduced to hiding Lord Grantham’s cherished dog, Isis, in the hopes of playing the hero when he returns the dog to her master.
While this Edwardian soap opera’s overheated class melodramas appear to provide little more than voyeuristic period fare for American viewers—Brideshead Revisited minus the wit and self-awareness—the parade of poor, dumb proles is so relentless that it’s hard not to picture its Yank fans savoring the show’s ugly class implications as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy. True, American TV comedies have offered up buffoonish working-class characters, from Ralph Kramden to Homer Simpson, who dream up harebrained get-rich-quick schemes only to wake up and fall on their faces. But Downton Abbey is the show for our moment, unique in offering the old-world rich as the remedy for the miseries and woes of the lower orders—something that U.S.-produced television longs to propose from its own culturally aloof sanctums in Hollywood, but can never pull off.
This shift in sensibility represents a new, decadent phase in the always demented logic of TV production. Even during the darkest, upward-redistributing days of the Reagan and first Bush eras, television could still deliver a firm slap in the face of class prerogative, be it the lurid inhumanity depicted in owning-class soap operas such as Dynasty and Dallas, or the quasi-heroic sitcom misadventures of Roseanne Barr and the Bundy clan. Yes, that cohort of working-class protagonists was still condemned to economic doom and cultural irrelevance, but the rich were tobogganing headlong into the void at a much faster and more stylish clip themselves. If they accomplished nothing else, the TV offerings of the eighties and nineties made viewers from any social class feel equally bad about themselves. In the cloistered and punitive Old World of Downton Abbey, though, underlings who display any fire in their bellies are treated as petulant and uncomprehending children. When Tom Branson (Allen Leech), a put-upon chauffeur, aims to upend a soup of cow pies and spoilt milk over the head of a visiting military officer in order to demonstrate his distaste for capitalists and their wars, his social betters behave as if his ideals are merely rationalizations for attention-seeking stunts. Likewise, the maid Ethel’s desire to light up her dreary life with a little romance is greeted as the self-destructive behavior of a harlot. And so on, throughout the awkward and stilted social deference that makes up the true dramatic tension in this curious franchise, which has still more curiously caught on like wildfire among PBS’s liberal viewership.
You’d think a dose of class retribution could come in handy—something like Revenge, ABC’s fantastical new drama about Emily (Emily VanCamp), a feisty middle-class woman who’s intent on bringing down the corrupt rich people who condemned her father, David Clarke (James Tupper), to a disgraceful and untimely death. There were quite a few of them, too, from Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), the wealthy matriarch who had an affair with Emily’s dad and then turned on him, to Victoria’s head of security, who had David collared for a terrorist crime he didn’t commit, to the author who was paid off by Victoria to write a book about how David was guilty. The guiding principle here is that the very prosperous, if they so choose, can crush mere mortals under their feet. “The people I bring into my inner circle will always be protected,” Victoria tells the bribed author. “You will remain in that circle as long as you hold up your agreement. If you choose not to, I guarantee that those memoirs you’re so proud of will end in a very dark chapter.”
Revenge presents an even starker version of the cartoonish nastiness and depravity of eighties soaps Dallas and Dynasty. Instead of setting forth a morally unstable world inhabited by flawed but fragile characters—think of those scenes at the Ewing ranch or the Carrington mansion where every single character gathered in a Scooby-Doo semicircle and accused each other of double-dealing—Revenge focuses on one tenacious antiheroine who’s hell-bent on destroying a uniformly malevolent family. But neither Emily nor her one ally, Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann), a dotcom billionaire, is presented as a pure-hearted crusader, fighting the good fight for justice. Nolan is more than a little creepy and slightly sadistic, and Emily, although she’s been horribly wronged, shows so little hesitation in embracing a campaign of deception and vengeance that the whole crusade takes on a slightly surrealist flavor.
The only thing saving Emily from damnation is the comparative malice of her enemies. Because, while only J. R. Ewing and Alexis Carrington were consistent in their villainy, the rich characters on Revenge have the heart and soul of Cruella de Vil. Aside from the occasional glimmer of self-doubt that flickers across Victoria’s face, these characters seem to have more in common with Dr. Evil or Mr. Burns than with real human beings. Revenge has money instantly rendering human beings rotten to the core. “You really are a son of a bitch, aren’t you?” Conrad Grayson (Henry Czerny), Victoria’s evil husband, says to Tyler (Ashton Holmes), a young man who’s trying to blackmail him. “Yes, it does appear that you despicable people are starting to rub off on me,” Tyler replies. Like Dynasty and Dallas (and Downton Abbey, for that matter), Revenge has no subtext. What you see is what you get.
And it’s no surprise to find that the working-class characters on Revenge are prone to the same self-sabotaging behaviors that you find on Downton Abbey. Emily’s friends from the past are scrappy, hardworking types whose down-to-earth warmth never quite makes up for their impulsiveness and bad taste. Emily’s true love is Jack Porter (Nick Wechsler), a burly guy who can usually be found in a plaid shirt, sleeves rolled up, pouring brews at the local pub he owns, where some facsimile of John Cougar Mellencamp’s greatest hits plays on an endless loop. His girlfriend Amanda (Margarita Levieva) is a former stripper whose distinguishing characteristic is that she’s not smart. When Amanda isn’t speaking to Jack in simple sentences, she’s climbing onto the bar in her Daisy Duke short-shorts and pouring alcohol directly into the mouths of scraggly local ne’er-do-wells. Jack scoffs at her slutty antics, but like any working-class opportunist, he changes his tune when it’s time to count up those wads of cash she’s just won in exchange for her dignity. Jack tells Amanda he’d like to use that money to take her out to a nice dinner, but Amanda wants to hit Atlantic City instead. That’s what foolish poor people do with their extra money, after all: they lose it all at a blackjack table while John Cougar Mellencamp plays in the background. The moral? If these people would stop sucking on a chili dog behind the Tastee Freez, they might have some hope of trading in that little pink house for a 10,000-square-foot mansion on the beach.
Television has lately tried to address the plight of the poor directly—albeit in a sitcom, the only format in which industry executives can seem to tolerate the idea of poor people. You might have hoped that on the basis of the title alone, CBS’s Two Broke Girls would show the trials, tribulations, and self-knowing wit shared among real Americans after the 2008 meltdown. After all, past sitcom generations have dealt with such material head-on, and sometimes even insightfully—from All in the Family to Good Times to Roseanne.
But where those earlier shows were able to make the blue-collar world of the Midwest or the outer boroughs of New York seem like places where people lived, Two Broke Girls feels more like a sloppy diorama in a natural history museum. In the scrappy diner of Whitney Cummings and Michael Patrick King’s creation, absurd stereotypes come to non-life. Max (Kat Dennings) is the prototypical no-nonsense underclass woman, prone to making the sorts of bad choices that make her brand new friend and fellow waitress, Caroline (Beth Behrs), roll her eyes. You see, Caroline was rich and spoiled until her father was arrested for perpetrating a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme, so she’s ambitious and hardworking (huh?). When savvy Caroline discovers that hapless Max makes great cupcakes, she pushes Max to start a business. Caroline enrolls Max in a cupcake decorating class, then sets up their website, finds customers, gets gigs, and makes sure they get paid. She even gets Max to throw a benefit at the diner in order to pay off her student loans. Without Caroline to keep her on the straight and narrow path to glory, presumably Max would blow all of her profits on OxyContin, boxed wine, and Ho Hos.
And even though Caroline has a criminal for a father, Max is the one whose family life is painted as dysfunctional. Max grew up poor, you see, so her parents must be careless, trashy, or absent. “No one taught me how to bake, no one taught me how to use tampons, no one taught me anything,” she tells Caroline. She laments her mother’s flakiness and says she finds the idea of a loving family “unbelievable.” And when Caroline feels bad, Max tells her, “Giving in to feelings is for rich people. Regular people just have to get up, get drunk, and go fulfill their babysitting duties.” Still, Max makes it clear that being poor is a temporary state of affairs for both of them. “Listen, everybody’s broke in their twenties, and everybody hides from stuff,” she says. “You run into freezers; I practice ignorance and black-out drinking.” The diner is where the most clownish racial stereotypes play out. Earl (Garrett Morris), the cashier, appears to have been cobbled together from old Sanford and Son sound bites. “My mother used to make the best chocolate pie,” Earl tells the others in one episode. “I remember one time she got so mad at this white lady she worked for, she took the chocolate pie to the bathroom . . . No, hold on, that was from The Help.” Han Lee (Matthew Moy), the diner’s owner, is an industrious Korean man who barks orders in a heavy accent, punctuated occasionally by childlike lines like, “I want so bad to be heep.” Oleg (Jonathan Kite), the Russian cook, never utters a word that doesn’t involve sexual innuendo. From here, more stereotypes wander into the diner, interacting with the stereotypes therein, forming a breathtaking three-ring circus of flat characters derived entirely from age-old prejudices and fleeting conversations overheard at the local deli.
Two Broke Girls is the kind of comedy that pretends to focus on the concerns of the common man even as the story itself undermines those concerns. “So when you were laying around on your trust fund doing nothing every day, having other people scrub your toilet, you could hold your head up high?” Max asks when Caroline hides instead of facing a wealthy ex-boyfriend who comes into the diner, unaware that she works there. “But now that you support yourself by earning your own money, that’s somehow shameful?” This sort of speech might be a little more convincing if the world of Two Broke Girls weren’t consistently painted as shameful, from harrowing encounters with snobby exes to catering jobs where supermodels boss the two girls around to some degrading scenes involving coupon clipping. But then, this is the central premise of Two Broke Girls: those hard-earned savings don’t add up very quickly, and until they do, you’d better prepare to be humiliated by those with more money (and therefore more dignity).
After a few hours enduring the class-bound clichés of Two Broke Girls and Revenge, it’s hard not to long for the class-bound clichés of Gossip Girl, if only because Gossip Girl, like its rich thugs vs. poor thugs predecessor, The O.C., plays more as farce than melodrama. In fact, most of the fun of Gossip Girl lies in rubbernecking the perks of wealthy Manhattan—which are so much perkier than the perks of wealthy Manhattan Beach: sipping cocktails at the New York Palace Hotel, browsing at Bergdorf’s and Missoni, lounging at the Russian Tea Room. And the pretty young things therein are as well cast as the locations; you couldn’t find a closer physical embodiment of prep school grandiosity than Ed Westwick (who plays Chuck Bass) if you plucked a Salinger-scripted phony out of The Catcher in the Rye and threw him onto the small screen. And what woman in the world personifies the breezy entitlement of Upper West Side femininity better than Blake Lively?
Recreating a fantasy of the beautiful life is only half the battle, of course. The other half lies in toying with the dysfunctional tics of the propertied class, from teenagers living alone in luxury hotels while their indifferent parents foot the bill to the constant abuse of handservants like Blair Waldorf’s (Leighton Meester) underling/faux-Mommy Dorota (Zuzanna Szadkowski). But the worst nightmare of all for these poor little rich kids is the feeling that any achievement they manage to carry off will be the result of someone pulling strings for them behind the scenes. “My grandfather just admitted to me that the only reason I have this job is because he bought the Spectator,” says Nate (Chace Crawford) in a recent episode. “Here I was, thinking I was doing great work and so proud of it, now I just feel like a total fraud.” Creator Josh Schwartz and the other writers of Gossip Girl seem to recognize that making rich characters evil almost feels like overkill. There’s plenty of injustice already built into the picture, even when the characters’ intentions are pure.
What’s atypical about Gossip Girl is that the middle-class kids on the show aren’t depicted as occupying higher moral ground than their loaded (in all senses of the word) peers; they, too, suffer from self-obsession, narcissism, and ego-driven despair. Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) in particular—like Hannah of Girls—serves as a cautionary tale for those just privileged enough to indulge themselves in a creative-class career. Dan labors over a novel about his classmates, then balks when his friend Vanessa (Jessica Szohr) secretly gives his manuscript to a publisher. From there, Dan is embittered by every success. First he doesn’t want his book to be published. Then his book is published, yes—but his book signings aren’t popular enough. (“My book is a failure, Dad. I’m a failure.”) Next, his book is optioned, but the producer wants to change his character from an innocent outsider to a skilled manipulator. (“We’re gonna Zuckerberg him!” the producer tells Serena.) Finally, the movie gets killed. Dan should be basking in the satisfaction of having accomplished something using his talents. Instead, he’s whining to anyone who’ll listen that his writing career is making him miserable.
Strangely, it’s the ability of the rich on Gossip Girl to casually admit their unfair advantages that separates the show from its less tolerable TV cousins. Whether Chuck is offering to pay off Blair’s dowry and release her from her bad marriage or Blair is sending Dorota on some awful errand to serve her own selfish needs, the enormous benefits of wealth aren’t reduced to either blackmail or bestowing favors. Instead of pretending that money makes them morally superior (Downton Abbey) or morally inferior (Revenge), the wealthy of Gossip Girl encounter their wealth exactly the way real wealthy people do: with matter-of-fact pleasure. Take Chuck, explaining why he became a male slut in the wake of his breakup with his one true love, Blair. He was heartbroken at first, he says, “But then I realized I’m a seventeen-year-old billionaire. With tremendous stamina.”
Even the delusions of the wealthy aren’t offensive on Gossip Girl, maybe because they’re treated as just that. When Vanessa asks Blair, “What makes you better than me?” Blair is thrilled to respond, “Everything. Generations of breeding and wealth had to come together to produce me. I have more in common with Marie Antoinette than with you.” Yes, Blair: you certainly do.
Exposing the presumptions of the prosperous while never giving in to the notion that wealth bestows any kind of ethical advantage (or disadvantage, for that matter): this is what both Gossip Girl and Girls do so well. But instead of showering the rich and less rich with equal-opportunity angst and scorn, how about making television shows about regular people, struggling to survive without appearing either hapless or insane, working hard to make ends meet without shooting themselves in the foot? If network execs and TV writers need a little help imagining stories about regular people with regular concerns, they need to stop and look around for minute. Because, well, we’re everywhere—everywhere but on TV.