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Why we can’t get enough of watching rich and terrible characters in TV series like ‘The White Lotus’

Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), Paula (Brittany O’Grady) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) in the HBO series “The White Lotus.”
There’s a scene in the very first episode of HBO’s critically acclaimed prestige drama, “Succession,” that is about as viscerally unsettling to watch as a Jigsaw death trap in a “Saw” film.

The pilot sees the media magnate Roy family — an amalgam of the Murdochs, the Hearsts and other dynasties — decide to play an impromptu game of softball. A boy and his family watch nearby, and when youngest son Roman Roy notices them, he brokers a deal with the boy: If the kid can score a run, Roman will pay him $1 million. It’s chump change for Roman — he’s got the nasty swagger of someone fully aware of their privilege and willing to wield it like a weapon — but the funds could radically change the boy’s family’s life.
The boy swings and sends the ball soaring. He darts around the bases and almost — almost — slides into $1 million when Roman’s soon-to-be brother-in-law tags him out with disturbing zeal.
“That is so sad,” Roman tells the kid, keeling over in laughter. The Roys leave the field and return to their Manhattan empire. The boy is left embarrassed.
It’s perhaps the hardest-to-watch scene in a series whose de facto protagonist kills someone in a car accident (and is still, somehow, a hero).
We detest the Roy family in “Succession,” and yet we watch, rewatch and pick apart the series after each episode. We uncomfortably laugh at Jennifer Coolidge’s deluded socialite has-been in “The White Lotus,” fawn over the fashion worn by the bratty, uber-rich kids in “Gossip Girl” and fear the wrath of girlboss Laura Dern in “Big Little Lies.” Yet we still keep watching, often cringing our way through. Such series confirm our worst suspicions about the wealthiest among us — but the characters’ fictional riches and all the accompanying baggage makes for riveting television. (HBO and HBO Max — home to shows such as “Succession” and “The White Lotus”

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