The past five years and four seasons of Succession, a highly entertaining and addictive HBO series, captivated me and my wife.
There's never been a TV show that captured so brilliantly the devious machinations of a powerful family, the Roys, as the children of billionaire mogul Logan Roy vie to succeed him as the leader of his company.
Without exception the acting was superb. The writing, exquisite. The plot twists, tantalizing. The humor, darkly funny.
I was sad when the closing credits appeared on last Sunday's final episode of the concluding season. While the Roy family couldn't be said to be likable -- in fact, none of the primary characters were -- I deeply liked their unlikability.
Well, let me take that last sentence back a bit, because some memories of touching moments in Succession just occurred to me.
The Roy family often would speak of loving each other, and sometimes that seemed to be true.
But only briefly. Then they would go back to playing their vicious rich people games. Lacking nothing material, having more money than they could ever spend, their concerns centered around who their father favored as his successor and how they were faring in various financial power struggles.
In last Sunday's New York Times, there was a story by James Poniewozik that captured what was most politically disturbing about Succession. I'd had vague feelings about what was said in the story, which was titled in the print edition, "In 'Succession,' Troubles of Rich Are Ours Too." But Poniewozik crystallized for me what was most wrong about the Roy family.
As is the case with most of our nation's real-world billionaires, the selfish desires of the super-super-rich aren't just something to be viewed from afar by us ordinary citizens as tasty soap-opera morsels. No, those desires have consequences for everybody, given how powerful the Elon Musk's and Rupert Murdoch's of our culture have become.
Here's excerpts from the New York Times story.
On Nov. 21, 1980, more than 83 million people — over three-quarters of the entire American TV viewership — watched “Who Done It?,” the episode of “Dallas” that revealed who shot the love-to-hate-him oil magnate J.R. Ewing. The mystery, which CBS milked for eight solid months, was a consuming obsession, a Texas-sized example of the power of 20th-century TV to focus the world on one thing.
On Sunday, HBO’s “Succession” will answer the question (or not) of who inherits the media empire of the late tyrant Logan Roy in front of a viewership of — well, a lot less than 83 million. (The show’s final season premiere had 2.3 million same-day viewers; delayed viewing on streaming brings the total average audience to over 8 million.)
Airing its finale to a much more dispersed audience is a fitting end to the saga of a family that got rich off the modern media market, whose final episodes are set against the backdrop of a country that is coming apart.
But numbers aside, “Succession” is in many ways the premium-cable, late-capitalist heir to “Dallas,” a prime-time saga that uses delicious dialogue and sibling rivalries to explore the particular nature of wealth in its time. It’s “Dallas” after 40-plus years of wealth concentration and media fragmentation.
The “Who Shot J.R.?” sensation was, in retrospect, the high-water mark of mass media’s reach. In 1980, three networks still controlled the entire TV audience, which they would soon have to share with cable. It was also a cultural turning point; prime time was becoming fascinated with the rich just as the Reagan Revolution was beginning.
“Succession” is very different from “Dallas” in the details. There are no twangy accents, assassination attempts, cliffhangers or season-long dreams. Its plot turns are simply, devastatingly inevitable: The show sets up conditions, gives its characters motivations and lets them act in their interests. (“Yellowstone” is a closer heir to “Dallas” in both cowboy hats and murder plots.)
And if the “Succession” audience is smaller, the money is, pointedly, bigger. Rewatched in 2023, the idea of luxury in “Dallas” looks quaint, almost dowdy. The aesthetic is Texan country club; the Ewing homestead, the size of a decent suburban McMansion, is a toolshed next to the Manhattan aeries, Hamptons manors and Italian villas that the Roys flitter among.
Some of this is a matter of modern premium-cable budgets vs. the grind of old-school network-TV production, of course. But it also reflects the changed, distorting nature of modern riches. In 1980, American wealth inequality was still near its postwar lows. Since then, the wealth of the top .01 percent has grown at a rate roughly five times as much as that of the population overall. Today, the very rich are very, very, very richer.
The holdings of Waystar Royco — Hollywood studios, cruise lines, newspapers, amusement parks, a king-making right-wing news channel — make Ewing Oil look like a franchise gas station. We know only vaguely how Logan Roy built his empire, but it was enabled partly by the media-consolidation and antitrust deregulation, beginning in the “Dallas”/Reagan era, that allowed his real-life analogues like Rupert Murdoch to make their own piles.
...“Succession” has long hinted at the Roys’ willingness to play footsie with dark political forces for ratings and influence. Waystar’s right-wing news network, ATN, leaves a popular commentator on the air despite his Nazi sympathies. The family backs a far-right presidential candidate, Jeryd Mencken, who voices openness to the ideas of Hitler and Franco. (Mencken fittingly shares a surname with the American writer who said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”)
Late in the final season, the close presidential election is disrupted by a fire, apparently started by Mencken supporters, that incinerates thousands of ballots for his opponent in liberal Milwaukee. In exchange for Mencken’s regulatory cooperation in a struggle over control of the company, ATN declares the handsome fascist the winner, legitimizing his claim to power amid a legal challenge. The result leads to riots. But it’s great for ratings.
As for American democracy — well, good luck! Part of the fantasy of past rich-family sagas was that none of the drama affected you, even by implication. When Ewings did each other dirty in the oil business, you were never asked to imagine yourself, somewhere offscreen, seeing your gas prices go up.
“Succession,” on the other hand, argues that the problems of today’s hyper-rich inevitably become ours because they have so much influence and so little sense of responsibility. (Its main exception is the Pierce family, the owners of a rival media empire, whose blue-blood noblesse oblige comes across as patronizing and ineffectual.) We are swamped in the wake of their yachts and chopped up by the propeller blades, even if the billionaires, sitting on the top deck, scarcely feel a bump.
And while the damaged characters are fascinating, even pitiable, there’s no one among the Roys or their enablers worth rooting for. As with “Game of Thrones,” if you think the important thing is who finally ends up in the big chair, you’re missing the point.