Maybe a pandemic wasn’t the best time to dive into Succession, since “eat the rich” isn’t exactly a message I need beaten into my head right now. (Reader: I am completely on board to field dress, fillet, slow roast, sauce, and fully barbacoa the rich.)
When you read thinkpieces about Succession, they inevitably lead with a belabored justification for viewing the show that’s akin to the song and dance you’ll get when you walk in on your boyfriend thumbing through a titty mag when he didn’t realize you were still in the house. It’s clearly not a show that people feel proud of watching. Five minutes into episode one, it was pretty obvious to me why: it’s a self-proclaimed “satire” that takes its characters and their problems just a little too seriously, and expects just a little too much empathy from its audience.
Also, it didn’t make me laugh once, but there is a goddamn global crisis being really badly managed right outside my front door, so my sense of humor is perhaps less generous than it would normally be.
Succession is ostensibly a satirical primetime soap about a powerful family, the Roys, who helm a global media and entertainment empire. They are a crude mashup of the Murdochs and the Trumps with a dash of the Hearsts, a sprinkling of the Gettys, a twist of Jeff Bezos, and a dollop of Big Dick Cheney Energy on top. I spent the first half of season one wondering if this show was actually an absurdist remake of Arrested Development until I finally realized, “Oh shit, no, they really mean this. They really want me to give a fuck about these terrible people.”
The pater familias, Logan Roy, embodies all the standard cliches associated with the real life men he composites. He’s a hot-tempered, power-hungry, junk-food fueled conservative who didn’t serve in Vietnam, with bad taste in clothes and zero sense of humor. He runs meetings, family dinners, and therapy sessions like an 80s junk bond dealer, barking “Fuck off!” whenever he’s done with whatever situation’s before him. He wants to own “all the news”. He’s on wife number three (I think, who cares, the wives of these men are literally all the same), loves pitting the members of his inner circle against each other for his own entertainment, and he has no intention of stepping down from his role as King Shitbird of Fuck-off Mountain, no matter how many strokes he has. That’s literally everything you need to know about him.
The Roy progeny are everything you’d imagine the contemporaries of known lizardpeople Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to be. Each of the four is problematic in their own way and all of them are equally ill mannered, incompetent, and entitled. (Yes, for fans of this show, I’m including the lone daughter Shiv in that. Don’t @ me. She sucks.) On the fringes of these four nightmarish offspring are two more hapless white dudes: Cousin Greg, and Tom the Fiance (later Tom the Cucked Husband). Cousin Greg is essentially a surrogate for the audience: he’s a middle-class interloper who manages to get his hands on the evidence that could take the whole family down, but he’s also a bumbling idiot, vaguely reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart in Harvey, and as a result the entire first two seasons are a tedious will-he-or-won’t-he mystery that has only one inevitable outcome and therefore isn’t terribly suspenseful.
The show navigates any number of garden variety corporate melodramas that have been done to death on All My Children: hostile takeovers, secret debt, union busting, political lobbying, media influence, criminal coverups, fun with NDA’s, and of course plenty of evidence shredding. All of these issues are dealt with in such broad and generalized strokes that their outcomes are just as generic and unaffecting, and double and triple crosses litter episodes so extensively that there’s truly nobody worth rooting for. Well, except possibly for Cousin Greg, who keeps as much evidence as he shreds, but it’s hard to give much of a shit after twenty hours of Mostly Everyone Else But Cousin Greg.
The lack of creativity in broaching these plot points is incredibly disappointing. The writers of this show do a lot of back-patting in the post episode “inside look” segments, but I’ve yet to see an original storyline emerge. The show’s “murder” is basically a modern retelling of Chappaquiddick; the show’s “Me Too” scandal could have been plagiarized from a Ronan Farrow article; the show’s “union busting” scandal is pretty much exactly what’s been happening at G/O Media over the last five years as venture capitalists decide they’re suddenly Citizen Kane and that writers don’t need to be paid fairly for editorial content. A bachelor party that’s supposed to be some sort of Eyes Wide Shut-caliber fete appears to be a pretty standard millennial warehouse art party in which all the sex is merely talked about, which for a show that’s on premium cable and can therefore show us as much sex as it wants to, is frankly a crime.
This is where fans of the show will all yell at me, “That’s the fucking point! It’s a commentary on real issues in American capitalism!” I know, guys. I KNOW.
The thing is, I’m also not a goddamn idiot. I don’t need to be presented with fake terrible rich white people to know that the actual rich white people in this country fucking suck. Their malfeasance is well known to me! I don’t need an hourlong singing telegram about it for ten weeks in a row every year to drive home that I should hate them and the hell that their neoliberal America hath wrought.
Maybe the fans of this show do. Maybe they’ve literally never worked a shitty office job and maybe they’ve literally never read a newspaper. Maybe they’ve literally been dropped right here on earth, on their heads, from a long life of total obliviousness in a parallel universe.
Maybe they enjoy the fact that when anything of consequence happens, the Succession theme music—which is a single, cliched, four-bar theme used in any and all situations—kicks in aggressively to make sure viewers accurately registered the Bad People doing the Bad Things.
Maybe they enjoy getting motion sickness from the gratuitous, seizure-inducing zooms and trembling handheld cameras that were presumably operated by a shivering monkey. Said monkey, being a simian, would therefore understandably not know where to pull focus and when to stop pulling focus, which would explain why viewers are perpetually subjected to multiple reframes of the same fucking shot, as if the show’s editor took the weekend off and forgot to cut the additional takes from the scene.
More cerebral critics than I (ahem, LA Review of Books) have posited that these kind of choices are intentional and savvy, all about the medium informing the message, but that still leaves me wondering…who is intended to receive this message and is that desired recipient so infernally stupid that they need the message literally shaken into them week after week? If it’s meant to be more Shakespearean, as other critics and even some actors on the show have argued, then perhaps its writers would benefit from actually reading some Shakespeare. If the idea that America’s rich white corporate overlords are trash is “the point”, again I ask: who in this, the plague-riddled year of our Lord two thousand and twenty, has not yet learned that rich white people who own massive corporate interests are trash? I don’t need to see these things fictionalized; reality is stomach churning enough.
The popularity of Succession should worry all of us immensely. Palace intrigue can be titillating, but that fact that this show’s drama stems from real life’s own, well-documented, vile events is a kind of scary indicator that we, the audience, not only accept this reality for what it is, but in fact endorse it and enjoy its depiction. “It’s satire!” we claim, but somehow we’re eager for hours of it, somehow we’ve started to care about characters who were supposed to be cartoonish archetypes. We everyday Joes here in America are fine with the rich getting richer and more removed from social, political, economic, and moral accountability for hoarding their wealth and abusing the laborers whose backs they built it on. We’re so fine with it that when we get done taking it on the chin at our shitty, wage-stagnant, benefits-bereft day jobs, we go home, turn on the TV, and take it on the chin for fun. Succession might as well be called Stockholm Syndrome.
Fuck this show. Watch Arrested Development instead, or at least, the first three seasons. It’s also a show about awful rich people, but the key difference is that it’s actually funny.