Admit it. You are just as prepared as I was, on the basis of the same gossip-column scuttlebutt and class animus, to despise everybody who talked to Jamie Johnson for Born Rich (Monday, October 27; 10 to 11:15 p.m.; HBO) and now regrets it—all those well-heeled whiny whelps of the big-dog filthy rich, those Newhouses, Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Hartfords, Trumps, and Bloombergs who did a little recreational drugging at Collegiate or Chapin, at St. Paul’s and Brown; who helicopter to the Hamptons for supper at the country club and $900 magnums of champagne; who, when they aren’t shopping, talk about trust funds, shrinks, and prenups; and who, when they are shopping, buy clothes instead of art.
Have I mentioned horses? The rich, Hemingway once told us, are always “either busy studying how to get more wealth, or horses, or what is wrong with themselves, with psychoanalysis, or horses, or how not to lose what wealth they have, or horses, or the moving-picture business, or horses, or all of these things together, and, possibly, horses.” But among the twentysomethings in Born Rich, only Georgina Bloomberg, the youngest daughter of our mayor, is seen in the saddle, aspiring to become a world-class show jumper. Except for Stephanie Ercklentz shopping, and S. I. Newhouse IV fencing, and Cody Franchetti modeling, the others seem never to exert themselves at all, although gyms and grass-court tennis are mentioned, and Christina Floyd’s father, pro golfer Ray Floyd, at least made his money with muscle and merit, outside in real weather.
But, except for the Eurotrash, they are more pathetic than despicable. Growing up among the right people and the finer things, embarrassed to be ferried to and fro in chauffeur-driven limos, graduating as often from bitter divorces and estate battles as from Swiss boarding schools and Ivy League colleges, trembling like impalas on the lion-infested savannah at the very thought of being “cut off” from the family funds for unspecified delinquencies, they somehow imagine themselves marooned in the immense vastation of their money, capable of being understood only by someone exactly like them—a fellow plutobrat.
When he isn’t fencing, S. I. Newhouse IV contemplates going to graduate school just to spite his family. Luke Weil, who will inherit the Autotote gaming empire, is so angry about everything that he will sue Jamie Johnson in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the distribution of this film. Jamie himself, the documentarian who finds it ironic that he must pay retail for a Band-Aid even though he’s a Johnson & Johnson heir, has several heart-to-hearts with his oil-painting dad, who never had to work for a living, either, and would rather not talk about it. Abstract Expressionist Juliet Hartford remembers growing up on Paradise Island before her father, Huntington Hartford, gave away half a billion dollars. Josiah Hornblower, a mixed batch of Vanderbilts and Whitneys, could be the most sensitive of the spawn (“Doesn’t your family have a museum?” is one of his jokes), but he makes far too much out of a sabbatical from college during which he worked in a Texas oil field—right alongside actual Cajuns and Hispanics!
Somebody paraphrases Schopenhauer on the duty of the rich. This somebody must have been one of the Euros, either Carlo von Zeitschel, who is both an Italian count and a German baron, as well as Kaiser Wilhelm’s great-grandson, or the male model and downtown music student Cody Franchetti, an Italian baron who stands to inherit much of the Milliken textile fortune. But whoever quoted S. also laughs him off. Guilt is not a downtown category. Nor, perhaps, should it be, quite yet at least, an incapacitating idea for these feckless kids. They are still too young to have done enough harm to warrant compensatory damages in the form of museums, libraries, music halls, charitable trusts, skating rinks, or hospital wings. What does seem inexcusable is their lack of curiosity. They could go anywhere, meet anybody, do anything, even some good, on a mission or a whim. But they sit around like a bunch of jukeboxes in a private honky-tonk, playing the same sad country songs.
Except for Kim Philby (Toby Stephens), all the other Cambridge Spies (Saturdays, October 25 through November 22; 10 to 11 p.m.; BBC America) were as well-born as a Whitney. Before ending up at Trinity College, Cambridge, where they majored in communism and espionage, Anthony Blunt (Samuel West) prepped at Marlborough, Guy Burgess (Tom Hollander) at Eton and the Royal Naval College, and Donald Maclean (Rupert Penry-Jones) was the son of a Liberal cabinet minister. Fortunately for the broadest possible demographic that might be tempted to watch this five-part BBC miniseries, while Burgess and Blunt were gay, Philby and Maclean were not. (Philby, in fact, wound up living with Maclean’s wife back in the USSR.) So there is just as much heterosex as the other kind, with perhaps a Brideshead Revisited emphasis on bare male bottoms. Everybody also smokes.
But mostly they betray their country, if not for Stalin, about whom they had reason to quibble from at least the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on, then for each other, as lifetime members of the same club of white-bread blue bloods, for whom counterfeit identities were as much a form of dress-up as a clandestine career. Even when they are right—about the fascist bombing of Picasso’s Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, for instance—they are so self-righteous about it as to encourage us to root for Franco. I’m not sure these are the emotions Peter Moffat means to arouse in his teleplay, which always knows more than the actors trapped in it, but they might as well be Skull and Bones.
Nor does James Jesus Angleton (John Light) fare much better here, suspicious of his friend Philby but so fustian as to annoy the authorities he seeks to persuade. You’d never know from this mini-series that, even though he apparently went bonkers late in his counterintelligence career, he was probably smarter than all four English spies combined, a Futurist poet, a buddy of T. S. Eliot’s, and the editor of a Yale literary magazine before he disappeared into his “wilderness of mirrors.”
It is moreover through Angleton’s odd prism that we can’t help looking today at the games spies play. While the real world burns, they make a labyrinth for one another, a coded discourse, full of doubles, screens, drops, and moles, deep covers and surprise blowbacks, their very own occult—what Don DeLillo called in Libra a theology of secrets. None of this is fun for anybody else.
Lawrence of Arabia (October 22; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is yet another enthralled account of the cross-dressing desert fox, with lamentable re-creations of the dramatic action in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks, in front of Crusader castles that turn out to be genuine in Syria; bare feet and camels, British diplomacy, and British betrayal. A useful reminder of where the Mideast mess began.
Boston Public (October 24; 9 to 10 p.m.; Fox) returns for its fourth season with a three-hour “arc” inviting us to care about Dennis Miller as an investment banker convicted of securities fraud and sentenced to teach algebra at Winslow High School. That’ll teach everybody something, no matter what Elton John says. Sherilyn Fenn also guest-stars just long enough to break Scott Guber’s heart.