A rich vein of TV storytelling

[27 August 2008]

By Chuck Barney

Contra Costa Times (MCT)

As a girl growing up in Brooklyn, Rina Mimoun was a big fan of the blockbuster television hit “Dallas,” with its opulent settings and its incredibly outsize main character, J.R. Ewing. So entranced was she that Mimoun would occasionally don a cowboy hat, slip into a drawl and “terrorize” family members with her earnest imitations of the high-rolling oil tycoon.

“I was a very bossy child and I loved how J.R. was this ultimate villain with a smile,” she recalls. “And the show itself just seemed like an incredible fantasy to me because I didn’t grow up around money.”

TV’s HIGH ROLLERS OK, so it’s not Forbes, but we tried coming up with a list of who might be some of the wealthiest characters ever to grace the TV screen. Here they are, in no particular order: J.R. Ewing (“Dallas”) - Everything, apparently, is bigger in Texas. Case in point: This oil tycoon’s bank account (and ego). Montgomery Burns (“The Simpsons”) - His desire for wealth and power have no limits. We say, release the hounds on him. Bruce Wayne (“Batman”) ” Those dark rubber suits alone must cost a fortune. Alexis Carrington Colby (“Dynasty”) - If we had a dollar for every catfight in which she participated, we’d be rich, too. Jed Clampett (“The Beverly Hillbillies”) - Ol’ Jed’s net worth would be in the stratosphere today, considering the lofty cost of oil. Thurston Howell III (“Gilligan’s Island”) - Alas, what good is fabulous wealth when you’re stuck on an island with “no phone, no lights, no motor cars ... not a single luxury”? Gomez Addams (“The Addams Family”) - When you’ve got his kind of money, you can afford to be as creepy and kooky as you want to be. George Jefferson - Who knew a few dry-cleaning stores could lead to a deluxe apartment in the sky? Erica Kane (“All My Children”) - From humble beginnings to the queen of Pine Valley. Yes, she is Erica Kane! Hugo “Hurley” Reyes - See: Thurston Howell III.

Fast-forward to the present day and Mimoun is now an executive producer on “Privileged,” a coming drama series from The CW that, like “Dallas,” will plunge viewers into the world of the rich and powerful, albeit with a very different slant.

“Privileged” is one of several prime-time shows awash in affluence. On The CW, it will be joined by the highly hyped update of “Beverly Hills 90210,” the iconic 1990s teen series set in one of America’s most glamorous ZIP codes; and the returning “Gossip Girl,” which focuses on mansion-dwelling prep school students in New York.

Meanwhile, ABC will relaunch “Dirty Sexy Money,” the over-the-top multigenerational soap about the misadventures of a filthy rich family; and NBC has “Lipstick Jungle,” the Brooke Shields drama that focuses on prosperous and powerful businesswomen. Also coming to Fox will be “Do Not Disturb,” a comedy set in a posh hotel that caters to celebrities.

This embarrassment of riches is somewhat reminiscent of when shows such as “Dynasty,” “Falcon Crest,” and yes, “Dallas,” rode high in the ratings. And it really is no surprise, according to Chuck Kleinhans, a professor at Northwestern University who has written extensively about class and the media. It all goes back to that famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote about the rich being “different from you and me.”

“People are always interested in what is not like them,” says Kleinhans. “They know their friends and family; they don’t know the superrich. Some of this is curiosity. Some of it is envy. Some of it is jealousy. Some of it is snarkiness.”

On the other hand, television programmers could be making a major misstep. The American economy, after all, has been in a major slump. Do viewers who are struggling with sky-high gas prices, workplace anxiety and dismal real estate news really want to spend their nights watching beautiful people clad in designer clothes, buying jewelry in upscale shops and cruising around in limos?

Dawn Ostroff, entertainment chief for The CW, apparently believes that they do. “It’s interesting because when you look at when shows like this were very popular - ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Dallas’ back in the day - (they debuted) when there were economic hard times,” she told reporters during television’s summer press tour. “And so a lot of times when the country goes through times like these, where we’re in what is perceived by many as a recession, having entertainment be escapist entertainment is what our viewers look for.”

That’s certainly nothing new, according to L.S. Kim, a professor at UC Santa Cruz who specializes in popular culture. She says television and films have wallowed in wealth and glamour - for ages.

“It is part of the escapism they provide,” she says. “On one hand, it is acceptable in popular culture to show a fantasy lifestyle contrary to what most people are experiencing” think about the kind of escapist films produced during the Great Depression, for instance. On the other hand, there is a fine balance that must be struck so that the public is not pushed into scoffing at or rejecting portrayals of wealth.”

That’s a mind-set that does cause Mimoun some concern. “It’s difficult,” she says. “You want to make sure that you’re not alienating a lot of viewers across the country who might be in tough financial situations.”

Her show, “Privileged,” focuses on 23-year-old Megan Smith (JoAnna Garcia), a Yale grad and wannabe journalist who somehow becomes the live-in tutor for the twin teen granddaughters of a Palm Beach cosmetic mogul (Anne Archer). The show is based on a best-selling book by Zoey Dean.

While “Privileged” will tap into the same sort of money, excess and oh-so-fabulous lifestyles as “Gossip Girl,” Mimoun says it will take a lighter approach.

“Tonally, we want it to be more like ‘Clueless’ and ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’” she says. “It’s a wish-fulfillment comedy. We want to keep it fun and upbeat.”

An example of that playful approach can be found on the set of “Privileged,” where the twin characters have a wardrobe closet that Mimoun claims is “four times the size” of the one Carrie had in the “Sex and the City” movie.

“Every woman who has visited our set just says ‘Omigod!’ and squeals in delight,” she reports.

Both “Privileged” and the new “90210” will attempt to mine a sense of relatability for ordinary viewers by relying on characters who essentially serve as the audience’s way into the show’s world (“A character who is working on our level,” says Mimoun). On “Privileged,” the outsider looking in is Megan, and on “90210,” it’s a family from Kansas City struggling to adjust to life in Southern California.

“We feel like this central family - this core family - moves into Beverly Hills and it’s (about) how do they hold onto their, sort of, moral center,” says “90210” executive producer Jeff Judah, who insists that the series will balance the fantastical glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills with everyday reality.

“It’s grounded with real character stories and emotional stories,” he says. “Whether these kids drive Maseratis or whatever mansions they live in, we want people who watch in Iowa going ‘That’s how I feel when my dad gets mad at me,’ and ‘That’s how I feel when someone doesn’t like me.”

Of course, if the beautiful teens of “90210” are anything like their predecessors, they’ll endure their fair share of neuroses and hardship, which is essentially the great equalizer between the rich people on the screen and the great unwashed masses watching at home.

“I think the concept of schadenfreude is operating in the pleasure people have of watching representations of the wealthy,” Kim says. “There is a sense of satisfaction in seeing those ‘who have everything’ also have dysfunction and problems in their lives - that money doesn’t guarantee happiness - and that the viewer’s own life is good, even if she or he doesn’t have as much money. There is a moral superiority that non-wealthy people can have over those who are wealthy and lead ‘messed-up’ lives.”

And for those who desire to see members of high society brought down to earth even more, there’s “Secret Millionaire,” a reality series coming to Fox at midseason that sends ultrarich people into some of “the most impoverished and dangerous towns in America” to carry out goodwill missions.

Now that’s a sacrifice J.R. never had to make.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/a-rich-vein-of-tv-storytelling/