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Michelle Singletary column: Is art imitating life with “The Haves and the Have Nots” TV show?

We can deny it if we want, but we love to be entertained by shows about people derailing their lives. Throw in an underlying theme of rich versus poor, and the ratings soar.

So I was curious how Tyler Perry’s two new shows for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network would play. Pretty good.

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“The Haves and the Have Nots” and “Love Thy Neighbor” delivered the network its largest and second-largest series debuts. “The Haves and the Have Nots,” which airs Tuesdays, is a drama about the Cryers, a rich white Savannah family (philandering powerful judge husband, old-money stay-at-home wife, drug-addicted son, and psychologically frail law-student daughter).

Their lives intersect with that of a new maid, Hanna Young, and her estranged, lying, scheming daughter and entrepreneur son. To balance the low-income Young family, Perry has included a stuck-up new-money black family, the Harringtons.

“The rich get richer, and the poor get even,” the tagline for the show reads.

Is this art imitating life?

I have to ask because the rich are indeed getting richer.

The average net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution chain increased 28 percent during the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery. But households in the lower 93 percent saw a 4 percent drop in their wealth, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data.

At the start of “The Haves and the Have Nots,” Judge Jim Cryer lies to his wife, telling her he is at the courthouse when he is in a hotel waiting for his paid escort, the twentysomething Candace Young, who is Hanna’s daughter. He invites Candace in. She says, “I thought I was coming to see an old man.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” he says.

“Well, money will get you this,” she says, opening her coat to reveal an outfit that looks like strips of black masking tape stuck to her body.

We find out Candace works as an escort to pay for law school and take care of her baby. She can’t stand being low-income. Candace is envious that the Cryer family takes vacations twice a year. She covets the closet of the lady of the manor — as big as a studio apartment.

“She has clothes with the tags still on them,” Candace says. “This is so unfair. So unfair.”

In one scene, Hanna and her adult son Benny talk about her dire financial situation. Benny says, “I just wish I could hit the lottery or somethin’.” His mother responds, “I’m just glad I was able to put the house in your name. If it gets too bad, they won’t be able to take it from us.”

On Wednesdays, OWN airs the second Perry show, “Love Thy Neighbor,” a half-hour comedy also with lots of personal finance themes and jokes. The lead character, Hattie Mae Love, runs a diner in Atlanta with her late husband’s brother.

Hattie wants her grandson Danny out of her house. She thinks her daughter Linda is too soft on her son, who has just graduated from college. She begs her mother to let Danny stay in one of the empty bedrooms. “Uh-uh, uh-uh! It’s just like feeding a cat,” Hattie says. “If you feed them, they’ll never want to leave.”

Money is a main character in both shows. I think of myself as a financial anthropologist examining our culture by the entertainment we watch. Another cable network, Bravo, has cashed in by letting us observe housewives with real and fake wealth. On other networks we gawk at, and in some cases envy, folks who strike it rich by acting buffoonish.

In Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Decay of Lying — An Observation,” two people are talking about art. One asks: “But you don’t mean to say that you seriously believe that life imitates art, that life in fact is the mirror, and art the reality?”

“Certainly I do,” the other responds. “Paradox though it may seem — and paradoxes are always dangerous things — it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

I wonder what we will learn from Perry’s shows.

Will we see the reflection of our own financial craziness?

Michelle Singletary
can be reached at singletarym@washpost.com.
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