Unable to get past the bouncer at a glitzy New York club, yet assigned to write about it for her tabloid rag, Megan Smith (JoAnna Garcia) decides instead to pen a diatribe against materialism. Not since the reign of Louis XIV, Megan opines, “have we rewarded such hedonism, such vulgarity.”
It’s an apt description of what The Nation‘s Doug Henwood has called our “New Gilded Age,” exemplified by the glut of television shows that celebrate contemporary heights of hedonism and vulgarity. Gossip Girl, The Hills, the revamp of 90210, and the cancelled Dirt are only the most obvious examples.
Thus the CW’s new Privileged offers an auspicious beginning: a snarky, maybe-lefty, aspiring journalist means to expose the corruption and cronyism of contemporary capitalism. Even more promising, Megan is set against the backdrop of Palm Beach, Florida, over-manufactured playground of the wealthy. While shows like The Hills offers a kind of histrionic critique of the super-elite, our own fascination with rich people surely needs some pointed skewering.
Unfortunately, Privileged does not deliver such skewering. Perhaps this is because, as editor Debra Wurtzel (Debi Mazar) insists just before she fires Megan, no one is interested in larger truths, only in supermodels doing coke in bathroom stalls and celebutantes puking drunk in public. When Megan arrives in Palm Beach, the tenor of Privileged changes drastically. Expecting to interview for an ill-defined job with a rich socialite, she is hired as the live-in tutor for the granddaughters of cosmetics magnate Laurel Limoges (Anne Archer).
The girls are callow and entitled, of course. When Megan dares to enter their bedroom before noon, Sage (Ashley Newbrough) shoots her with a Taser, thus leaving her teacher twitching on the carpet while she and her sister Rose (Lucy Kate Hale) go back to sleep. They rebuff Megan’s attempt to get them reading books on their summer list, as they’re too busy preparing for a photo shoot for Ocean Drive magazine. All this said, it’s established that the girls are far from stupid, and that Sage, at least, has already completed the assignment, declaring Jay Gatsby a “total closet case.”
Still, the girls are in need of saving, being victims of generic tragedy. Their parents died when they were toddlers and their steely grandmother’s philanthropic duties leave her no time for them. Megan surmises to her friend Charlie (Michael Cassidy), that she might be able to have a positive impact. She also, circuitously, admits that her motives aren’t entirely altruistic; tutoring the girls will certainly give her access to the kinds of people Megan feels are “important” enough to want to write about, like Laurel Limoges.
This indistinction between altruism and self-interest points to Privileged‘s other blurred lines. Details emerge about Megan’s own past privileges growing up in Palm Beach. It turns out that her animosity for the sweater-set set might be motivated less by dedication to social and economic justice and more by the selfish desire for some sort of personal vengeance or at least redemption. Sage’s self-interest is similarly complicated. While she seems overtly to care only about her own immediate gratification, her actions are also driven by her fierce loyalty to and desire to protect Rose.
These ethical conundrums are the real surprise of Privileged. While the show doesn’t (yet) expand on its opening diagnosis of the “New Gilded Age,” it just might offer more careful consideration of other possibilities of self-interest. Such complexity potentially sets the show apart from other similar shows. The Hills, in particular, demonstrates how selfishness and greed are their own rewards, as apotheosized in the “careers” of Brody Jenner, Spencer Pratt, and Heidi Montag. Privileged dares to ask whether selfishness might, against odds, also benefit others. In Sage’s protection of Rose and Megan’s desire to help herself through mentoring the sisters, Privileged, the show challenges our presumptions about class, privilege, and selfishness. It appears that these spoiled, rich white girls might find themselves in helping others, even if only by accident.