Scenes From The Upper-Class Struggle

Down here on Earth, we’re struggling to pay the bills, so why are the one-percenters of ‘White Lotus’ and ‘Fleishman Is In Trouble’ so compelling?

To my surprise, I care about Rich People Problems.

After three seasons glued to Succession, it should have been obvious. But it leaves no doubt when my two current TV jams both feature a cast of wealthy, unapologetically class-driven (mostly) Caucasians: Season Two of HBO’s The White Lotus and FX’s Fleishman Is In Trouble.

The former, of course, won awards galore after a surprisingly daring first season from writer/director Mike White, and returned with a new setting (Italy) and only one returning cast member (Jennifer Coolidge, still sublime) for its murder-mystery-at-a-resort-hotel format. Rich people show up, have lots of sex, drink gallons of cocktails, microaggressively abuse the locals and the hotel employees. There’s a silver lining: one of them will probably die.

Wealth and folly: Tom Hollander and Jennifer Coolidge in Season 2 of ‘The White Lotus.’

Fleishman is a little trickier to pin down, at least for anyone who hasn’t read the source novel from the show’s writer/self-adapter Taffy Brodesser-Akner. I haven’t, but I’ve heard enough to know that the show’s first four episodes, focused on Jesse Eisenberg’s grating New York City doctor character, Toby Fleishman, is leading up to a large twist of perspective. I’m guessing the focus flips to his ex-wife, Rachel (Claire Danes, spiky and glorious as Hell) to cut right through the entitled fantasies of Toby’s narrative.

I find both shows extremely watchable, of course, with lots of rich detail and sympathy even for its most potentially unctuous characters. Adam Brody and Lizzy Caplan on Fleishman, who play Toby’s longtime friends, could be caricatures of a suburban mom and a horny serial dater, but instead the show draws them as deeply devoted buds who will tolerate years of neglect, coming right back to their friend’s side after a messy divorce.

On White Lotus, it only took a couple episodes of Season Two’s slow burn before the various stories heated up into a symphony of horny, soul-searching awkwardness. The show’s most seemingly miserable character, Coolidge’s Tanya McQuoid-Hunt, proves its most receptive to beauty and transcendence. It’s a neat, tough-to-pull-off trick, making one of your lead characters the ugly butt of so many jokes and also the sympathetic center of your story. White has done it before, though, with Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) on HBO’s criminally underappreciated Enlightenment.

Where the rich characterizations and well-observed details sell the sometimes underbaked plotting of both shows, the part I keep focusing on with these shows is the element they mostly ignore: the money. While the first season of White Lotus was explicitly about white privilege and colonialist tourism, the second season is more about social class and what it can buy you. Class is also critical on Fleishman, where money itself is an afterthought. Nobody pays for anything at the all-inclusive Lotus resorts. And as Toby fumbles through the miserable stages of post-married life (miserable except for lots and lots of dating-app sex), we don’t see a lot of credit-card swiping or bills getting paid. He hates the Hamptons getaway home he co-owned. His $300,000-a-year hepatologist salary is considered low for his social strata.

Jesse Eisenberg and Claire Danes, buying things they obviously can afford on ‘Fleishman Is In Trouble.’

As someone who grew up lower-middle-class (and barely graduated to middle-middle class), the idea that you can throw money at your problems and they often go away is as much science fiction to me as The Mandalorian. I kept wondering how much Fleishman was paying that nanny he foolishly fired for not monitoring his son’s internet usage (a parent’s job, by the way, not a nanny’s). What, I wonder, would a week-long resort stay in Taormina cost? I could Google that, but I’m old enough to have a heart attack and I’m not taking the risk. The idea that Portia and her bad-boy romantic partner on White Lotus would skip out on a minuscule restaurant check they could easily pay, or that Cameron has the money to pay off a persistent Italian hooker he had sex with, but chooses not to…these actions vex me.

I can’t imagine any character on either show struggling to pay their taxes on time or deciding a family gym membership is too expensive or choosing the store-brand cereal at the supermarket because it’s a dollar cheaper and almost, almost tastes the same as Frosted Mini Wheats.

Lotus and Fleishman are beautifully written, finely acted, and shot confidently. They are great shows by almost any measure of quality. But to me, the added appeal is that they are otherworldly, a glimpse at the kind of privileged lives that I get further and further from living from the older I get in the not-so-lucrative worlds of writing and journalism.

The White Lotus and Fleishman Is In Trouble are my House of the Dragon: pure escapist fantasy with no student loans, no redistricting, and never, ever a credit limit.

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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