So I started watching Ringer, a show that marks the return of Sarah Michelle Gellar. In the show, SMG plays two roles—twin sisters. Siobhan is the mean-girl who left the confines of her earlier life for the wealth of the city. Bridget is the addict who stayed. Others on this show include Ioan Gruffudd not doing an American accent, Nestor Carbonell’s eyeliner and a woman who looks like Blossom. People don’t seem to like this show. The reviews on Metacritic are mixed at best. The reasons given include the special effects, the writing, SMG’s acting and how improbable the show is.[i] So far, I really like the show. I want to know what is going to happen and I don’t always know what is going to happen. It is kinda trashy but in a way I love. A dirty, sexy, greasy way like Spartacus: Blood and Sand, well-oiled leather or early James Spader. As far as the effects go, there is one scene on a boat that does look terrible but that doesn’t ruin the show for me. While I am watching Ringer, I believe that SMG is two different people.[ii] I don’t think the show tries to be more than it is. Anyway, I think there is something about the show that people don’t like even if, I think, they don’t know they don’t like it—it is critical of the lives of rich people.
For the past too many years American television or, at least American network television, has been dominated by two types of television show. The first type of show depicts the lives of rich people—either under the moniker of “reality” or fiction. The second type of show depicts the lives of people who serve rich people. Everyone is either a doctor, a lawyer or makes cakes for people who can spend hundreds of dollars on a cake (for instance—doctors or lawyers). Many of these shows purport to depict “reality”—a claim I don’t think anyone can/does take seriously. Is there anyone who believes the “real” in the Real Housewives of …?
Beverly Hills 90210 is the first show, not hosted by Robyn Leach, I can remember watching that was about rich people. As I remember, when the show first aired it was criticized for being unrealistic because it depicted rich people. At the same time another criticism I remember hearing was that the casting of Tori Spelling, a case of nepotism, largely had her pretending to live a life she already had in the real world. Often it feels that what is meant when something is criticised as not being realistic is either that a particular representation a) does not reflect what I perceive the majority of people being like or b) that does not conform to my understanding of what my own life is like. Anyway, the show, an Aaron Spelling production, was about a bunch of rich kids and, sometimes, about their rich parents. However, the thing about 90210, despite the way it is sometimes remembered, was that it was critical of rich kids. The show’s stories were mostly told from the point of view of Brandon and Brenda Walsh, nouveau riche brother and sister recently relocated from Minnesota to California. Brandon and Brenda were the mostly down to earth middle-American kids with good values who felt guilty when they didn’t do what their parents told them to do. In fact, Brandon almost always did the right thing.[iii] That the Walshes were wealthy was something they actually struggled with, rather than struggled because of, unlike all of their peers. Kelly’s mom was an alcoholic. Steve’s mom was more concerned with her career and once even asked her son to manipulate a classmate, David, to scheme her way into a prestigious role. These were the parents of Ellis’s Less Than Zero. They were mostly absentee parents, busy making money to buy their kids’ newest ostentatious toys or, when they were around, they were coked out and ruining their daughter’s fashion show. The only character, at least initially, who did not come from money was Andrea Zuckerman, a character almost universally reviled and noted for appearing to be in her mid-thirties. Significantly, Andrea hid her poorer economic background and less desirable ZIP Code so she could attend the prestigious West Beverly High feeling that this deception was her only chance at a successful future. 90210 was, in fact, a critique of America’s wealthy. Something, at least at the time it aired, a lot of people missed. Debuting in 1990, the success of 90210 was responsible for the creation of a host of inferior clones such as Melrose Place, the only clone to have success comparable to 90210’s. However, as is often the case, the clones failed to reproduce the very quality that made the original popular, or at least unique, in the first place. While 90210, albeit in a soap opera for kids kinda way, actually addressed issues such as rape, HIV/AIDS, suicide and alcoholism most of the other shows were just about the drama caused by a bunch of self-centred, affluent people. Similarly, the current trend of teen dramas about rich kids began with The OC, another show, like 90210, that was critical of the lives of the wealthy. That show was about growing up in Orange County and was told from the perspective of Ryan, a kid from the other side of the tracks/ Chino, and Seth, a nerd who doesn’t fit in and hates living in Orange County. Yet, somehow this show placed Orange County enough in the American cultural consciousness to spawn a show about the lives of a bunch of petty women who spend a lot of money. Defenders of that show and its various clones might claim that in later seasons the show traces how the lives of the housewives change after the global repercussions of 2008 and thus a critical reading of wealth is possible. However, I am doubtful that the producers of the show intended to take that direction with their show and have been merely capitalizing on the 2008 meltdown, one of the failures of capitalism. And frankly I am doubtful that fans of the show actually subscribe to this reading.
On Ringer, Siobhan, the rich sister, is cold, duplicitous and a criminal. Her husband Andrew, from what I’ve seen isn’t a bad person, but at the same time he works too much and doesn’t really know how to be a good person. He works too often, and his relationships suffer. His daughter, given everything, is resentful. We see, once again, how rich parent means absentee parent. SMG’s best movie, at least if you’re me, is Cruel Intentions—a modernization of Valmont/Dangerous Liaisons about spoiled, vapid teenagers with nothing better to do than ruin the lives of nicer people. In that movie we hardly ever see parents. We are told how they are “away.” In the cultural consciousness rich parents are always “away.” Other than SMG’s imposter sister, I wouldn’t want to know any of the other characters. They’re not really likeable and they have more money than I do.
[i] Whenever a TV critic criticizes a show for being “improbable” I like to find out if they like Lost.
[ii] There are momentary lapses when all I hear is Buffy talking.
[iii] This changed in later seasons as well as most of the focus of the earlier seasons.