The Rich Get Richer

The Darling family makes a striking first impression. We meet them, in the new ABC show "Dirty Sexy Money," as they're climbing out of limousines at a high-profile event. The show's creator, Craig Wright, says the Darlings are a composite of families both real and fictional. But the moment they appear, they cast a Kennedy-esque shadow, perhaps because the event they're attending is a funeral. There are paparazzi and crowds and tabloid journalists. As Juliet Darling, the family's spoiled celebutante, is entering the service, a blunt reporter mocks her aspirations of becoming an actress. Juliet fires back "Well look at you! You're poor!"—an all-purpose retort for daughters of means.

There hasn't been a prime-time clan as gleefully classist as the Darlings since the '80s, when the nation was absorbed in the treachery and dysfunction of wealthy dynasties like the Ewings of "Dallas" and the Carringtons on "Dynasty." This season there are actually three new TV power families: the Darlings, the Duques of CBS's "Cane" and, in early 2008, the Shakespeares of HBO's "12 Miles of Bad Road" (Why can't TV's rich folks ever have names like "Jones"?). It should come as no surprise that we've cycled back to the '80s-era American dynasty now, amid swelling hedge-fund fortunes and a flourishing housing market (until the bubble burst, anyway). Many Americans have gotten wealthier, or at least close enough to fantasize about how their lives would be if they were a little more Sam Walton and a little less John Boy Walton. What sets these new shows apart from the soapy dynasty dramas of the '80s is that they don't explore wealth as much as they explore different ways of relating to it, whether we're attracted to it or repulsed by it, and whether we possess it or allow it to possess us.

The Shakespeares may lord it over the Dallas real-estate market, but they have little else in common with the Ewing family. They don't seem to take money very seriously. In fact, they don't talk about money at all. "On most shows about wealth, it's about screwing your partners and ending up with the biggest wad of money," says show creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (who created "Designing Women"). "There's no feuding over money in this show. It's just there." Instead of commenting on their greed, "12 Miles" comically skewers the Shakespeares' immersion in haughty, high-society Dallas. One character who needs a lift into town ends up hitching a ride in a V-12-powered miniaturized Lamborghini driven by an 8-year-old.

"Cane" isn't comic, or even seriocomic. It's a show about a family business more than a statement on excessive lifestyles. The Duques are a powerful rum-and-sugar dynasty and have achieved a level of success that eluded many of their fellow Cubans who came to America seeking a better life. They're at odds with the Samuelses, a nefarious white family whose desire to undo the Duques brims with implicit racism. It's easy for a viewer of average means to empathize with the wealthy underdog Duques; anyone who had to work as hard for the money would be consumed by what to do with it and how to keep it.

But of the three, it's the Darlings that best capture the Zeitgeist. We watch them for an hour without finding out the source of their affluence, because it really doesn't matter. Our interest in wealthy families isn't just the wealth—it's the dysfunction that the wealth creates. "The unattractive parts of these people's lives have been systematically marketed to us by a culture that likes selling a feeling of superiority to people who are doing without a lot," Wright says. There's so much more information available to us about the Hiltons than there ever was about the Rockefellers, thanks to blogs, "Access: Hollywood" and ill-advised Facebook posts. Therein lies the brilliance of the title "Dirty Sexy Money": our wealthy families are poured through a filter, sifting out all the voyeuristic pleasures—the dirt, the sex and the tragicomedy—which get served to us on a silver platter.

But the best is yet to come. "Dallas," the template of the television dynasty, is being adapted as a film scheduled for release in 2009. It's being reimagined—naturally—as a comedy, because if we can't beat them or join them, we might as well laugh at them.