Television has always been fascinated by the lifestyles of the rich and famous, both in scripted drama and unscripted reality fare, which has wildly proliferated.
While earlier dramas and comedies had fun with the trappings of wealth — from “The Beverly Hillbillies” to “Dallas” and “Dynasty” — programs like “Silicon Valley” and “Billions” go beyond the flashy accessories (yachts, island homes and gratuitous trips to strip clubs) and delve into the psychology and eccentricities associated with being what novelist Tom Wolfe called a “master of the universe.”
Beginning its fourth season, “Silicon Valley” still finds its core group striving to get rich with what they hope will be the latest must-have app, in this case involving a video chat start-up.
Still, some of “Silicon Valley’s” most insightful moments (and biggest laughs) come from the movers and shakers in this arena, where the dearth of social graces and interpersonal filters can create hilariously exaggerated behavior.
In the case of fictional tech-firm founder Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), that includes in one of the new episodes funding multiple trips by his private jet simply to prove a point. Three seasons in, “Silicon Valley’s” most memorable sex scene involves breeding a prized horse.
“Billions” provides a somewhat different perspective into the rich, since its hedge-fund characters spend all day dealing with money. For them, the work-hard, play-hard perks associated with the job are part of their compensation for all that stress.
Nevertheless, those at the top of the pyramid generally approach wealth as the means to an end — a tool for scoring points, gaining power and in some cases exacting revenge.
In this week’s episode, the fund’s psychologist, Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), rather neatly characterizes her relationship with money, as well as that of her boss, Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis.
“It is not about money for me,” Wendy explains. “Money means too little to me, and I have too much of it, to make decisions that way. Bobby’s the same.”
Money isn’t the objective, in other words, but a byproduct of winning. And because these characters are so extraordinarily competitive, it becomes a method of keeping score in the high-stakes game they’re playing.
“Silicon Valley” has been especially clever in allowing its key players small victories, while depriving them of the sort of success that Belson and his ilk have enjoyed. They thus retain an underdog status that the pugilists in “Billions” — engaged in what amounts to tactical warfare using the levers of government and business — have long since forfeited.
Money can buy a lot of things, but apparently, self-awareness isn’t among them.
“Silicon Valley” premieres April 23 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.