Nasty rich people are again on top in Elle Fanning-fronted period drama The Great, which marks the latest in a growing trend of opulent cruelty on our screens. Created by The Favourite‘s Tony McNamara, this 10-part Channel 4 series reimagines the life of Catherine the Great, who overthrew her husband Peter III of Russia in 1762 – and then plonked herself on the throne instead. It’s compelling, ruthlessly gory (one gruesome eye-gouging scene will live long in the memory) and revels in the bawdy machinations of power.
The show joins a recent swell of small screen stories that delight in pitting those with enormous privilege against each other in the name of power or revenge. Netflix’s elitist tale of Regency intrigue Bridgerton is already the most-discussed show of 2021, and has reportedly reached 63 million households in less than a month. The Murdoch family-inspired, multi-Emmy winning Succession is currently filming its third season. Gossip Girl – a beloved teen show built on rich people’s ability to betray and belittle each other – has been revamped for a new generation.
The foundations for TV’s newest obsession were laid well in advance thanks to a few key players: the Real Housewives and a surrounding slew of reality shows spotlighting the 1 per cent, and showrunners like Ryan Murphy. Fast-approaching its 10th season with a record-breaking $43 million budget, Murphy’s American Horror Story is a paragon of glib, graphic violence set in an alternating series of lush, baroque settings, with plenty of hand-wringing, ruthlessly rich caricatures that meet grisly ends.
Teen shows also encouraged a generation to relish the backstabbing politics amongst their glossy-haired ensembles. Shows that centralised privilege proved more enduring. Gossip Girls’ Upper East Side setting and the gated communities in The O.C. were the battle grounds that we wanted to keep revisiting, and the shows’ most transparent characters – Gossip Girl’s ever-judging Blair Waldorf and The O.C.’s social climber Julie Cooper – were our favourites.
Such was the success of The O.C., in fact, that it spawned three MTV reality shows: Laguna Beach, The Hills and The City, which followed a handful of former mansion-dwellers and their unrelatable yet compelling daily dramas. At the time, these shows were a sunny streak of escapism or a fictionalised, good-looking dose of the gossip and scandal that’s fed our appetites since the dawn of celebrity culture. Today, our choice to watch privilege unravel feels more personal and more political. With little to do at home than helplessly sit and watch a new daily horror unfold at the hands of a small, seemingly untouchable group of leaders, there’s a borrowed sense of satisfaction in watching powerful figures on screen being taken down in creative ways.
The ties between these stories and the Trump era especially are unavoidable. Bridgerton’s main villain is a wealthy Lord who makes a ham-fisted attempt to attack the show’s lead character before trying to bully her into marrying him. As Peter III in The Great, Nicholas Hoult delivers a delicious, career-best performance as a mercurial man-child who gropes, demeans and makes impulsive political decisions with abandon. It’s just as well that they didn’t have Twitter in the 1700s.
Comfort viewing may be a much-needed escape for a few hours during – to put it mildly – troubling times. Over 2020, Americans streamed more than 57 billion minutes of The Office (US), a show that left the air over seven years ago, and offers little in the way of peril. Yet these ruthless shows, even when set in hyperrealities, are a better representation of how people are feeling right now; angry and in need of catharsis. If they get a little eye candy at the same time, all the better.