Conclusion: The Reasons Some People Watch Succession — And It’s More Shocking Than Anything The Roys Do
So Succession isn’t original and it wasn’t even the best show on the air with a billionaire protagonist when it debuted. Why then do so many people watch it? The answer that has been suggested boggles the mind.
There are those who suggest that there may be a deeper subtext to Succession — in the way it’s filmed and the way the producers make it. One recent article actually suggested that every single member of the Roy family has been subject to abuse — both physical and almost certainly verbal — and each one reacts completely differently to it. There is evidence to back up this claim based on the actions of Logan throughout the series.
Let’s say the subtext this is true. There’s nothing new there. I’ll deal primarily with HBO series in this regard. We know just by watching Oz that many of the prisoners were abused as children. The most obvious candidates are Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons) based on his attitude towards father and how clearly he has beaten his two sons and with certainty we know the O’Reilly brothers (Dean and Scott William Winters) were beaten throughout their childhood. Ryan confirmed it on multiple occasions. We all know what a horrible mother Livia Soprano was to all of her children, and although there may not have been physical abuse we all know how bad the psychological scars were for Tony. Both Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver were abandoned by their mothers — Swearengen to an orphanage; Tolliver to a whorehouse — and we all know how monstrous they could be. Alma Garret was no doubt abused by her father based on her reactions to him when he showed up in Deadwood and we can only imagine to the abuse that Trixie and Joanie Stubbs went through growing up. (In Joanie’s case, she actually confided to Alma at one point how bad it was.)
This pattern continued through the second tier dramas of the past decade. On Boardwalk Empire, James Darmody’s (Michael Pitt) mother had a deep sexual fascination with him, and it actually exploded into incest at one point. Bill Hendrickson (Bill Paxton) the patriarch at the center of Big Love was driven out of his home by his father’s abuse, and we all saw that Nikki (Chloe Sevigny) was probably molested by both her father and much older husband. And when we met Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) the abusive Perry White’s mother on Big Little Lies, we got a very clear picture how Perry ended up beating Celeste.
All of this is to say that a childhood of abuse is nothing new on Peak TV. What makes all of these characters far more interesting than any of the Roys is that they have managed to at least grow beyond this to become, if not good people, at least functional ones, capable of surviving their complex worlds and even being capable of love. (Yes even the Aryan Schillinger loved his sons and he clearly loved his daughter-in-law. He’s a worse father than Logan Roy, but not by much.) So even if the Roys are an abused family, it doesn’t make them any more special and honestly, it does very little to make us garner more sympathy for them. Being abused may be the cause of their horrible behavior, but it does little to excuse it/
Yet even this explanation for analyzing Succession doesn’t bother me nearly as much as what was suggested in the Politico article I mentioned in the first column on this series. The writer made a clear point that part of the reason so many people love watching the series — despite the fact the characters are all repugnant and loathsome — is that these poor, working class people are enjoying watching these multi-billionaires suffer. The writer actually makes an even more ludicrous argument saying that we don’t need a wealth tax on the top one percent that will never pass anyway as long as we have series like Succession.
I’ve heard some absurd theories over the Internet over the years, but this one really does horrify me. I’ve watched the last two decades as television has become extraordinary while simultaneously political discourse and policy have declined pretty much to its nadir. Never in my wildest dreams would I consider using entertainment as a substitute for even an attempt at policy. It would be like walking up to a bunch of Hilary voters after the 2016 election and saying: “Look on the bright side — Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon will be doing a series of HBO in February!” For all the brilliance TV can offer, no one should ever try to use it to dictate policy.
But as a critic, the idea that millions of people are watching Succession for the sole purpose of seeing the characters suffers bothers me even more. This isn’t ‘hate-watching’ a series in the definition of a term. You’re not watching a show because it’s so bad it’s good; the viewers of Succession are watching this because they enjoy seeing the characters so miserable.
I’m not a fan of schadenfrude being the motivation for doing anything, but as someone who makes his living trying to get some pleasure from watching television, this goes against everything I stand for. I’ll admit to having watched a few series with characters I despised for longer than I should have (cough) Scandal but that was under the flawed misconception that someday some of the characters would pay for their sins. When it was clear that was never going to happen, I just stopped watching. This is actually worse because I’m pretty sure if the Roy family were to pay for their crimes, that would just be a bonus/
But who I am kidding? For the Roys to pay would go against everything we know about the billionaire culture. The worst thing that could happen to them, by their own ideas, would be if they were to lose Waystar. They’d still be the same miserable people with more wealth than the GDP of third world countries.
There are some people who were unhappy with the ending of The Sopranos because the suggestion was that Tony never paid for all the horrible things he did. Can you imagine people watching an HBO drama like that more than two decades later where that seems to be the whole point? The idea of it as political policy is repugnant. As TV watching policy, it leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
I’ve already wasted enough space as to why so many awards group have rewarded Succession over the years that I just don’t have the heart to repeat myself. But I know that when the Critics Choice awards give their nominations I expect to see Succession among the nominees not because it is a great series — but because it fits the idea of a great series, the same way Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones do. The Emmys have always had a habit of recognizing shows where rich and powerful white people scheme against other and suffer misfortune. Why should they stop now?
So to reiterate, Succession has nothing new to say about the rich and powerful, it pales in comparison to earlier HBO series when it comes to flawed protagonists and the only reason so many people seem to watch it is because they like seeing the characters being miserable. If that’s your idea of appointment television, you really need to watch some actual comedies. I’ve never loved Curb Your Enthusiasm, but at least people there are being unpleasant and miserable to be funny. And honestly when Susie Essman tells Larry to ‘fuck off’, it’s because she cares enough about him to hate him. I think hating people on Succession is just default mode. With all their money and power, they still have nothing better to do.