I cannot care less about wealthy people. Which is probably why I’ve put off seeing Succession until only recently. I’ve heard great stuff about it. I am constantly exposed to media (for instance, the Tiny Meat Gang podcast hosted by Youtube comedians Noel Miller and Cody Ko) by people who are in awe of it. But people say great stuff about Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013) too, and we know where that film stands amongst the crypto frat boys and gurus selling get-rich courses on the internet. The bottomline is that the travails of the über rich just don’t make for an intriguing storyline for me.
Stories of this kind have been a fixture of our film and literature for as long as rich people existed. Critics call it the Wealth Porn: stories that claim to satirize and lampoon the lavish lifestyles of our moneyed elites but at the same time cast an admiring, nay, a romanticizing glance over the glamour and the gold. And yes, as I am – in the words of Bo Burnham – a “hungry, hungry hypocrite,” I have myself seen and gushed over a number of pieces that fall within these genres. I am, after all, the same person that saw Crazy Rich Asians (2018, dir. Jon M. Chu) and immediately afterwards bought a plane ticket for Singapore, even though I had a fat chance of actually doing any of the things they did, or visiting any of the exclusive resorts and mansions they frequent in the film. For crying out loud, my favorite novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), which I contend has become the go-to choice for the Great American Novel because it has what America truly loves and worships: money as far as the eye can see.
As with any genre, if handled well it does have the potential of nevertheless producing a good story (albeit with some questionable morals). Though this isn’t to say that Crazy Rich is a contender for a modern classic: it just happens t o be so delightfully Asian. But it also has a tendency of becoming as excessive and exploitative as the people it depicts. I am a big fan of Scorsese’s work, but I do not have good memories of sitting through the three hour runtime of Wolf. And in the very specific case of Wolf, the empathy and romance it extends towards is characters bears the risk of it being misread and used as a campaign for the very lifestyle it purports to criticize. Fake rich gurus calling Wolf their favorite films? Talk about ironic.
This is the kind of story that I expected Succession was going to be, and boy was I in for a surprise. This HBO series is the creation of Jesse Armstrong, who has since won an Emmy for the sharp writing and acerbic wit he – along with many great writers – has put into the show. It stars Brian Cox as the aging business magnate and head of a vast media empire, Logan Roy. When Logan Roy’s iron grip on his throne loosens due to the medical woes that come with old age, his children step up to try and take control of what’s left.
At its core, Succession has all the potential of becoming just another “poor rich people” story: the kind that tries to get us on board with the idea that somehow rich people are made miserable by their wealth (if we could all be so lucky) and that we, the rest of the majority that actually have to be miserable and poor, must empathize with them. Not to mention, the trite plot of siblings fighting over their father’s kingdom is a turf that has already been mined to the ground by Korean dramas (take, for instance, the side plot of the recently trending Crash Landing On You).
One key failing of other media that attempt to lampoon rich people is that the rich people are always portrayed as sexy, desirable people. Consider, for instance, Henry Golding as Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians. The show’s writers appear very well aware of this. Succession instead declines its wealthy characters the sexiness that culture has always bestowed on them. None of the characters – though many of them are definitely easy on the eyes – ever appear desirable or are placed in desirable positions.
Kendall Roy (played by Jeremy Strong), the heir apparent of his father’s business, is a weak-willed fuckup who is always in the act of self-sabotage. His brother Roman (Kieran Culkin, who apparently has so much potential for the asshole character), equally vying for the throne, is a grown man-child and bully: a scene from the second episode in the first season shows him terrorizing a kid over a baseball game with the promise of a million dollars in cash if he successfully makes a home run against him. Logan’s eldest child, Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), hangs is money over a call girl to keep her hanging around. It is only their sister Siobhan (Sarah Snook) who displays any competitiveness, and this largely because she works outside of her father’s realm and defects into politics.
Probably the only character I find anywhere close to being empathetic is Cousin Greg (full name Greg Hirsch, related to the Roys through Logan’s brother, an absentee board member of the company) played by former Disney child star Nicholas Braun. Cousin Greg is reminiscent of Big Head in Silicon Valley, that is, a fuck up that somehow fails his way upwards. The only difference between the two is that where Big Head is a lovable idiot who is ignorant of the tides that are pushing him upwards, cousin Greg is perfectly aware and goes into active pursuit of that force. At the start of the season, Cousin Greg is in a mess, unable to secure even a dead-end job. By the end, he’s rubbing shoulders with the Roy siblings and eating exotic menu items at high-class restaurants with Shiobhan’s fiancé, making him essentially just one of them. A part of the family, so they say.
The main point of Succession isn’t that rich people are sad, sad people who have to suffer for having obscene amounts of money. It is that they have obscene amounts of money because they are morally challenged people who would fuck over anyone that comes in their way. Kendall spends much of the first season organizing a coup d’etat against his own father. Shiobhan’s fiancé , Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), in an attempt to appease whom he sees as his future boss in Kendall, makes a pawn of Greg Hirsch in an attempt to cover up a massive corporate conspiracy involving, among other things, murder and sexual assault.
At a thanksgiving dinner gone awry, Logan’s brother and Greg’s grandfather Ewan Roy warns Greg Hirsch, “This whole family is a nest of vipers, they’ll wrap themselves around you, and suffocate you.”
Succession is able to do so well at avoiding becoming another wealth porn epic because it declines to go into reductive arguments about the lives of crazy, filthy rich people. Rich people don’t deserve our admiration, and neither ought we empathize with them. We are talking about levels of wealth that require one to be in a constant state of fucking people over – family, friends, and the working class who just want to get their shit done and come home to their quiet lives. Lives that are always disrupted by the petty longings and lamentations of people who just can’t get enough.