Hi! Sorry for taking the entire summer off from doing this. I knew this (me Lady Birding myself out of Substack) would eventually happen because it has happened literally every other time I try to do a newsletter. Anyway, I disappeared because I was busy and working on building a new newsfeed inside the New York Times app. It was very fun and I loved my coworkers and the work we did but the beta test we were running is over so now I am freelancing again and also newsletter-writing. Anyway, today’s newsletter is about Succession. If you have not seen this show, you have permission to skip this post.
I was sitting at my desk in One World Trade Center last year when a coworker asked if I’d seen Succession yet. “It’s like a fictionalized account of the Murdoch family,” they said. This description did not appeal to me. I’d read what I presumed was everything there was to read about the Murdochs and News Corp and did not need what would likely be as a worse and more depressing version of the real thing projected back to me for an hour a week. I did no further research and continued to avoid the show until season one had run its course.
This all changed on one very miserably hungover Sunday morning, the kind of hangover where putting on running shorts and stumbling down the five-step stoop outside your building to go get a bagel from the bagel shop feels like mankind’s greatest achievement, the most Herculean thing you’ll ever do in your whole miserable life. I returned to my couch with an egg and cheese on a cinnamon raisin bagel and a Gatorade and considered, with the two remaining brain cells I still possessed bouncing around inside my skull, what to put on for background noise, the soundtrack of an already wasted day. The HBO Go app was for whatever reason really pushing Succession that morning, and I watched a trailer and thought sure, what the hell, I’m going to pass out again in twenty minutes anyway, and then I proceeded to devour the entire first season in one sitting.
If you haven’t seen it (why are you reading this???), the show is essentially this: there’s an aging media mogul played by Brian Cox, and after having a dramatic health scare, his four awful children begin to jockey for positions at Waystar Royco, his media empire. This makes it sound like a horrible drama, and while Succession does traffic in the kinds of backstabbing and dealmaking that you’d expect from a serious prestige show ostensibly about business, it’s a comedy in the sense that, like, a plotline in one episode revolves around a major character swallowing his own ejaculate, and there is spontaneous comic relief delivered via an injection of pithy dialogue roughly every 4-6 minutes.
I should also note that I am not really a fan of prestige television! Plus it usually takes me too long to get into any show to participate in the cultural zeitgeist, so this is both a rarity and an unlikely discovery I made entirely by accident. I don’t think the internecine drama among fictional bad people necessarily makes for good television, in particular when the fictional bad people closely resemble real bad people. But now, halfway through season two, I am a full-on Succession evangelist. I could write a very boring thing about how well-done the casting and the score are but I don’t think any of you want to read that so here I will briefly try to explain why this show is so good.
You hate every character. They are eminently hateable. They are beyond flawed, and can be (and often are!) downright cruel and selfish. They’re deeply unlikeable people who you also have nothing in common with. They do not make you envy the rich, but instead show you what miserable, sad lives rich people live. Still, the show does such a good job of getting you invested in the interpersonal dynamics of the characters and the nominal struggles they each face that you inexplicably find yourself rooting for them sometimes, like last night when I so badly and suddenly and desperately wanted Logan to close the deal to buy [redacted].
Succession perfectly captures the personalities and pathologies that underlie so much corporate public-relations snake oil. The show is exceptionally good at exposing how the sausage gets made, in a way that might scan as satire but is barely different from the real thing. (See: the workshopping of “We hear for you”).
The show is generous in a way that few are. So often you can feel when showrunners or networks or whatever are rationing their best stuff, and Succession feels like the opposite of that. It has SO much to give and it never feels stingy, or devoid of substance. You never feel like the show is genuinely depriving the audience of anything, and if the plot ever does veer into that territory it’s not a gimmick, and it always pays off. If anything, there’s almost too much to synthesize, but in a way that makes rewatching an episode rewarding and not tedious.
Yes, the Roys are wealthy. But unlike Dynasty or other shows centered on American wealth, there’s not SO much conspicuous consumption on Succession, and the ways in which you’re reminded you’re watching a show about immensely powerful and wealthy people don’t come from ostentatious displays. The show largely takes place in scenes in unremarkable apartments or white, sterile boardrooms.
Shiv Roy’s turtlenecks. No further questions at this time.
It’s always a stressful viewing experience (the Pierce-Roy dinner party, Kendall constantly refreshing the NYMag homepage to see if the article about [redacted] had been published yet) and will take a decade off of my life but I love it!!!!!! This is not true of other shows that are unbearably stressful for me to watch (The Handmaid’s Tale comes to mind).
Half of my friends who work in media have been laid off since I started working in this industry five years ago, and the other half of us have either narrowly avoided layoffs ourselves or have been burned in other equally insidious ways by employers. Maybe that’s why there’s something so deeply satisfying about seeing the inner workings of a very dysfunctional state of the top of a fictional media company. It only slightly hyperbolizes the experiences some of us have had as a result of mismanagement by our real-life, actual bosses, and their bosses.
I said I wasn’t going to talk about the dialogue but: the dialogue! Every episode is peppered with eminently quotable one-liners. When the aforementioned article about [redacted] comes out, Roman asks, “Is this one of those things I need a woman to explain to me why it’s bad?” It’s just one example of how the writers manage to tackle a bunch of themes that could be so….The Newsroom-y if someone else wrote the show. (I do not encourage you to think too hard about what Succession would be under the creative direction of Aaron Sorkin).
There’s one thing, I think, that functionally separates Succession from Billions, a show that traffics in similar subject matter (rich bad white people) and is often compared to Succession. Billions is about people who would die if they weren’t constantly performing transactions, or leapfrogging to the next hedge fund, or just going. The description of Succession I was initially given — that it’s a fictionalized account of a Murdoch-like family — may be true, but only in the abstract, and at least in one way it’s the opposite of Billions. Yeah, of course Succession is a show about a family of sociopaths and it’s a show about the media. But at its core, Succession is a tragedy about inertia, and it’s about a group of people who fear change, both within the family corporate behemoth they almost all find themselves inside of, and in their personal lives, which are basically the same thing.