Yes, I watched Succession. I started earlier this year after a very good friend of mine described it as “better than watching The Wire again”—which was the alternative I was considering. To get my opinion out of the way, I thought the first couple of seasons were highly absorbing, by the middle of the third season I no longer cared who came out on top in the power struggle, and the fourth season was so aimless I would have given up except that I knew I only had a few episodes to go.
There is a cottage industry of articles about why Succession was so popular despite being populated by completely, entirely, awful characters. The only show I can think of that compares is Veep—but, of course, that was a comedy (and a great one, too). My very good friend thinks it’s a show about parenting, but I don’t see it: all the major characters who are parents are unreservedly terrible at it (so obviously that examples are pointless) and don’t even care. The most they can do is occasionally rouse themselves to pretend they care about their children.
The usual takes have to do with showing the characters’ complexity, making them relatable, demonstrating how vulnerable they are, etc. I will concede that the writing and acting on Succession were excellent. But the major characters are not only terrible people morally (again, examples would just be a waste of time) but, with the possible exception of Logan, are terrible at everything they do, on screen at least. (Off screen, miracles happen, like the cruise controversy conveniently disappearing.) Anything any of the children says about business strategy is cringe-inducing. Tom isn’t even good at sucking up; instead of making people above him like him, which is the usual objective, he only succeeds in convincing them that he is such an enormous suck-up that he will do whatever they want. This is how he “wins” in the end. And in addition to being morally bankrupt and incompetent, they are emotional infants, unable to engage in meaningful relationships, obsessed with an abusive father, and on and on.
So what is so attractive about a show in which everyone is awful in every conceivable way? Besides the wealth porn, I think that it’s morality porn. The characters on Succession are extraordinarily rich and powerful—and, if you believe the script, are imposing fascism on the country. It’s comforting to think that their lives are so terrible, that their families are so broken, that even their riches don’t bring them any pleasure, and that even if they are destroying the fabric of American democracy at least they don’t get anything out of it. This is more than just the corrupting power of great wealth; it’s the soul-destroying power of great wealth. And the ending is perfect: none of the kids gets what they want, and even Tom—the apparent winner—is only the head of an American division, subject to a boss who sees him solely as an expendable person to absorb abuse from all sides.
In this way, Succession presents a way for ordinary people to come to terms with extreme inequality. The show doesn’t justify the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, but it does make one think, “Maybe it isn’t so bad to be in the 99% rather than the 1%.” Which, in my opinion, makes it another form of ideological escapism.
I confess I don’t know any billionaires. But the rich people whom I do know are doing just fine, thank you. They have many of the same struggles as everyone else. Those who are parents kids are only as happy as their least happy child, just like anyone else with kids. But while money doesn’t solve all problems, it does solve one class of problems—a class that, unfortunately, most people struggle with in one way or another.
As Hemingway said of the rich (in response not to Fitzgerald, however, but to one of his characters), “they have more money.” And for most people, according to recent academic research, having more money does, actually, make you happier. So let’s not shed any tears for the titans of finance, media, and technology (and their heirs). While they are amassing society’s resources to themselves—and, in some cases, accelerating the demise of democracy—they are happy enough.