The best show on TV has no likable characters, and yet we’re still watching
Previously on ‘Succession’, it appeared that the #metoo scandal that threatened to bring down the Roy family empire was going to bring down a couple of casualties but ultimately fade away. Logan Roy remained a kingmaker and he–along with the members of his family who still support him–attended a high profile (but secretive) conservative gathering at which a presidential nominee would be chosen via a backroom deal. Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), a camera-ready and Plato-quoting white supremacist and fascist emerged as the winner of this anointment.
For a moment, it looked like Shiv, Logan Roy’s daughter, will do something heroic and risk her standing among her family by refusing to pose for a photo with the rest of the Roys beside this candidate who she clearly feels would be dangerous to the country, the party and the family brand name. Ultimately, she caved. She posed for the photo at her father’s insistence but stood as far away from him as possible, using her lacky husband Tom as a visual barrier. Succession does this a lot: the viewer is never allowed the joy of admiring any of these characters.
For those of you who are uninitiated, Succession is about the Roys, a Murdoch-like family whose patriarch (Brian Cox as Logan Roy) is in the process of deciding to which of his three (or four) children to leave the reins of his business empire. Although Logan says he’s about to name a successor, he clearly doesn’t want to step down from his company and he’s obviously enjoying watching his offspring fight amongst themselves for his approval.
Succession isn’t a nighttime soap like Dynasty or Falcon Crest, with good guys to root for and villains you love to hate. Instead, it’s a prestige television show like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad where the protagonist, who you can’t help but sympathize with, is a monster. But you’re not exactly rooting for the protagonist’s enemies–“the good guys”–either. Not only does the viewer not care which Roy child inherits the company, one might also feel that the empire itself would do the world a favor by going out of business. And yet there we are every week with a big bucket of popcorn.
An earlier example of this sort of anti-hero was Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street as Gordon Gekko, a character based on a composite of crooked 80s financiers Michael Miken and Ivan Boesky. Years after portraying this oily, villainous personality, Michael Douglas claims that people often approach him and thank him for inspiring them to go into Investment Banking as a career after viewing this performance. Clearly whatever moral lesson the makers of Wall Street hoped to impart was lost on its viewers.
I don’t know of any Succession viewers who aspire to be a Roy, but wouldn’t surprise me to learn that such people exist. The Roys do live quite an opulent life: private jets, mega yachts, sumptuous real estate, servants and assistants at their beck and call. One of my favorite stories about the making of Succession is that they hired a consultant to teach the cast how to “act rich.” This consultant coached the cast to refrain from ducking when approaching a helicopter. Apparently most people instinctively duck protectively because don’t want their heads chopped off by those whirling blades. But a rich person who takes helicopters all the time, and knows better from repeated experience that those blades are too far from the ground to touch anyone’s heads. Yet there’s something clearly joyless about having all that money.
Unlike The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, where you see the humanity of these toxic protagonists from time to time, Succession keeps us largely at a distance from these unlikeable characters. Logan Roy, the patriarch is every bit as toxic as Tony Soprano, but we don’t get to see him in therapy. There is no Melfi.
Aside from a much-discussed shot of his naked back with a series of scars, we don’t really know how or why Logan Roy became the amoral corporate tyrant he is today. But we know that Walter White started cooking meth because he couldn’t afford his cancer treatments. If I identify or sympathize with anyone on Succession, it’s the help: the kitchen staff, throwing away lobsters because the Hamptons house has a funny smell or many assistants and junior associates who seem to be patiently holding their tongues refraining from rolling their eyes as they witness many examples of how out of touch and toxic these wealthy people are.
Who is the protagonist of Succession? is it Logan the King Lear-like patriarch? Or is it his troubled son Kendall, a douchey mish mosh of Macbeth and Hamlet? When they clash, I find myself unable to pick a side. It’s more like a cock fight or bar brawl: you watch because it’s random violence, not because you want either of them to win or lose.
Or you might think Succession is a comedy. Those toxic, snappy putdowns between the characters are reminiscent of dark comedies like Veep and Arrested Development. Jesse Armstrong, the creator of Succession, wrote an episode of Veep and collaborated on other projects with Veep creator Armando Iannucci and SNL’s Will Ferrell is an executive producer. But Veep was having a laugh about a pre-Trump world in which our institutions were still very much in place but they were starting to rot from the insides ever so slightly. Thus Selina Meyer (Julia Louis Dreyfus) is second in command but wields very little power, largely occupying that office because The President (an offscreen character) needed a female running mate. We can afford to laugh at how detached and loathsome she is.
In Succession, those institutions are in the process of crumbling and we’re dealing with the aftermath. The Plutocratic Roy family control a large chunk of the medi –A Fox News-like cable news network is one of its most profitable assets. They wield a great deal of power, have enough cash to stay in power and thus there’s nothing lighthearted or amusing about this. But that’s the world we live in right now. Perhaps the joy of watching Succession is simply that it’s telling that truth.