Everyone's always been miserable, except when they're watching rich people. As if previously operating under the crazy idea that people watch television to see their own lives reflected back at them, television writers today are all a-tizzy about the amount of shows about rich people, scratching their heads and wondering why, in this time of foreclosures and defaulted mortgages and soaring gas prices, anyone would want to watch something about people with overabundances of money. Their theory is that shows like Gossip Girl, Dirty Sexy Money, Lipstick Jungle, and the upcoming CW series 90210 and Privileged all create wish-fulfillment in mostly hopeless times. And, um yeah!, they're right!
If you go back to the great big whopping granddaddy of recessions, the Great Depression, you can clearly see that the misery of the people was offset or in some way mitigated by an influx of popular musicals and screwball comedies and swoony romances. Movies like Anything Goes and Love Affair were giddy, romantic delights, while The Wizard of Oz and You Can't Take It With You presented the penury of the times through something of an aw-shucks, zanily hardscrabble lens. Escapism at its finest. You turn then to the films of the supposedly-idyllic 1950's and there you have Rebel Without a Cause and A Streetcar Named Desire and the myriad alarmist science fiction movies plaguing the cinema. The American mind was free to look under the rock and see what bugs were underneath.
Fast forward a few decades to the early 1980's, that time when the country was still reeling from its urban centers being evacuated in the 1970's, leaving little but a grim, impoverished anger lurking their streets. And on television? Shows like Dallas and Dynasty. Even 1970's shows that depicted a blue collar lifestyle, like All in the Family or Sanford and Sons did so with a strangely warm slant. Of course artier fare was always there to reflect things as they were, but it does seem that in unpleasant times, people turn to mainstream entertainment that is silly and frivolous.
And so it is with these television shows now. The American taste seems to be increasingly obsessed with wealth and privilege, as such a lifestyle becomes more and more foreign to more and more people. But a couple of these new shows could be seen as correctives, in my mind. Gossip Girl, for example, shows the blind excess and awesomeness of wealth, yes, but there are also "poor" characters like Dan and Jenny who do look on that world with a healthy (for a teen soap opera) amount of skepticism. 90210 has always quietly mocked its characters' silly wealth, and hopefully this new iteration will do the same. And, look at a show like Exiled, in which the hideous brats from MTV's hit My Super Sweet 16 are sent to far flung, not-so-wealthy places and taught "valuable lessons." Yes the show isn't perfect, but it is giving the rich a rap on the knuckles. And also consider FX's The Riches, in which a family of Gypsy Travelers pretends to be rich and subverts the culture from the inside out.
So yeah, maybe we're turning our recession-era obsession with the wealthy into a social corrective! Look at how dim and vapid these people are! We don't want to be like them. Wouldn't that be pleasant wishful thinking! Really, people have always been obsessed with wealth and status, back to the days of the Greeks. Everyone's always been miserable! And when all of the practical stakes-shelter, food, etc.-are low, then the frothy dramatic ones can be raised. Right, The Wire? Right?