It takes until the second season of Succession for a main character to express an ounce of everyday moral doubt. That character would be hapless Cousin Greg, former family outsider and now assistant to Tom Wamsgans, the new boss at a television network and son-in-law to its corporate overlord, Logan Roy. Pressed by Wamsgans, Greg admits to doubts about working at the network, ATN, which is implied to be ethically akin to Fox News. “ATN is like … kind of against my principles?” Greg says. “Your principles?” Tom gasps. “Greg, don’t be an asshole, you don’t have principles.”
Succession’s main characters are generally despicable, committed to an inverted moral logic in which it’s an asshole move to let principles get in the way and the most offensive thing you can do is be sincere. The billionaire Roy family, an amalgamation of real-life media legacies such as the Murdochs and Redstones, are an entitled lot who act with total disregard and general disdain for everyone else. There’s little to root for, which initially made Succession a tough sell. Why, when the world mostly seems on fire, would you watch a show about a bunch of terrible, terribly rich white people amassing more wealth and power? And yet Succession emerged, absent heavy promotion, as HBO’s breakout hit of 2018. (The network announced Tuesday that a third season was also on the way.) I’ve circled around this contradiction for weeks. Why, when I feel burned out by, as the writer Clare Malone calls it, the “pervasive, high-information sadness” of the news, when tuning in means feeling scorched with rage, am I obsessed with a show about a ruthlessly capitalist media conglomerate?
I suspect this has something to do with how Succession combines a feeling of behind-the-scenes titillation with the freedom of fiction. The show’s look is prestige – detailed and expensive – yet crucially unsentimental; the characters’ various humiliations make their opulent mansions and perfectly tailored suits seem far more isolating, even scornful, than aspirational. And when it comes to ensuring the veracity of the high-finance world in which the characters live and work, the show is entirely serious; it employs several expert consultants to ensure the correct use of financial terms and that characters act like billionaires (such as not ducking at what would be, to them, the familiar sound of helicopter blades). The show’s writers have developed the fictional Waystar Royco’s own asset, ownership, and capital structure, according to the New York Times, and complicated boardroom procedures play out on screen. The result is a feeling of peeking behind the curtain at a world that is at once all-powerful and mostly hidden. “I don’t want to be in a fake version of the world,” the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, told the Times.
But Succession only hews so closely to the actual world – a tumultuous time in American politics is implied, but there’s no mention of the 2016 election; ATN is not called Fox News. A Roy scion (aptly named Shiv) works on a presidential campaign, but there’s no mention of Trump or Clinton or Sanders. If Succession is a mirror, then it’s one tilted a couple of degrees, refracting our world just enough to cut off buzzworthy names while giving space to the absurdity of our current moment. Where actual inspired-by-life content such as The Loudest Voice, Showtime’s series on Roger Ailes, or the movie Chappaquiddick, an echo of which closes out Succession’s first season, gets bogged down in the consequences of historical accuracy, Succession is free to show our world’s strands of sexism and power and corruption to be ridiculous, pitifully tragic, and seriously absurd. Watching Succession is continually having the realization, as the star Brian Cox told a recent roundtable, that “life is ludicrous and becomes increasingly more ludicrous and you just go, well, I’m part of the ludicrosity”.
The show’s ludicrosity, to use Cox’s non-word, comes through most effectively in its deranged humor. Armstrong’s brilliantly ironic dialogue – one character dismissed words as merely “complicated airflow” – allows the viewer space to laugh at what is transparently ridiculous, in a way that is increasingly impossible off-screen. “Okay so today the president said jews are stupid and got mad when he couldn’t buy greenland,” the comedian Megan Amram tweeted, seriously, on Tuesday, because that’s what happened – such news will necessarily be discussed far more seriously than in a tweet. In the real world, there are entire congressional investigations of an administration that continually reveals itself to be one of masterful incompetence; we have to take it seriously. In the funhouse mirror of Succession, Logan Roy’s eldest son, Connor, an effete rancher with no political experience, can seriously consider running for president, and both the characters and the viewers don’t need to worry about seeing it for exactly the laughable move that it is.
For all its ludicrousness, Succession feels incredibly clear-eyed about the world it depicts, just a few degrees removed from our own. The Roys and their elite dealers are, ultimately, just people – boiled in bad water, with the same petty, occasionally inspired, vindictive instincts as the rest of us. But they’re people whose tendencies for thoughtlessness and selfishness are so well rewarded, whose confidence is so calcified, who have come to believe so fully in their own compasses, that they align further and further with evil until they’re indistinguishable from it. In some ways, I find that comforting – the human instinct for other humans’ fallibility is far easier to grasp than boardroom procedures and asset swaps. But that’s also what makes it more terrifying.