Jesse Armstrong gets why everyone thinks that his new HBO show is all about Rupert Murdoch. It’s not just that Succession, which premieres Sunday night for a 10-episode run, centers on an aging media tycoon who has four charmed, troubled adult kids, an unflappable third wife, and a lot of tough choices to make about the stewardship of his empire. It’s also that Armstrong, the show’s creator, executive producer, and showrunner, once wrote and shopped a screenplay for a feature film called Murdoch that was, in that case, about Rupert Murdoch. The project was promising enough to get Hollywood attention (it was featured on the Black List, a compendium of the industry’s most compelling projects without homes) but not enough to ever get made. “It’s an understandable question,” Armstrong said during a panel interview last week when he was asked whether his erstwhile screenplay had inspired his new show. “I wrote a script about the real Murdoch family a long time ago. … And nothing really happened with that.”
That script, as described by Forbes writer Jeff Bercovici in 2011, “takes place over the course of a single day, the Australian-born mogul’s 78th birthday.” The plot involves Murdoch taking the celebration as an opportunity to ask his four oldest children to sign off on changes to their family trust. The script, at one point, makes a winking mention to King Lear. And there is a scene in which Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth scoffs profanely about a competing media family, the Bancrofts, with whom the Murdochs are engaging in corporate negotiations. “We’re not the Bancroft family, to be flipped and dicked,” she says of the former owners of The Wall Street Journal.
Succession, by way of comparison, also involves trust documents being whipped out at a patriarch’s birthday party. Brian Cox, the actor who plays the main character, Logan Roy, is well known for his performance of King Lear in Shakespearean theater. And there is a scene in which Cox’s character scoffs profanely at his son for his role in botching a media deal. “I hear you bent for him and he fucked you,” he snarls. Put this way, it’s easy to see why the assumption exists that Succession is a thinly veiled story about this specific man and the theoretically loved ones who enable and undermine him.
But “this is a fictional family,” Armstrong stressed during an interview with television critics in January. Yes, his Murdoch script may have attracted the attention of Adam McKay, the director of The Big Short, and helped lead to McKay’s involvement in Succession. (McKay and his creative partner, Will Ferrell, are executive producers; McKay also directed the pilot.) And Armstrong knows there are surface-level similarities between Murdoch and Logan Roy. But Armstrong continually notes that his Murdoch project was only a small spark, that Succession is about bigger things and is based on a much broader base of influences, from the HBO docuseries The Jinx (watching the show, Armstrong said in the panel interview last week, he got to “thinking about how rich and influential people can get away with things that other people don’t get away with”) to ancient history (“We had an expert on the history of the Imperial period of Roman history come and talk to us,” he told a screenwriting blog).
“Look at the American media landscape,” he said during the panel interview, and then rattled off the names of channels and the families who own the corporations that run each one. It was a reminder that the Murdoch family isn’t a one-off clan, but a representative of an industry filled with controlling families and their petty dramatics, all of them useful fodder for a series like Succession.
In 2010, the same year that Armstrong’s screenplay hit the Black List, Michael Wolff wrote a book on Murdoch titled The Man Who Owns the News. Long before the author of Fire and Fury was a pest in the face of President Donald Trump’s administration, he was already publishing dishy columns and books about ruthless powermongers. As a media columnist for Vanity Fair, Wolff was an incessant needler of the people running his own industry, and he channeled that work experience for the Murdoch project. Wolff’s book has a business element to it, covering doomed corporate mergers and including the sort of board room banter and nitty-gritty details, like the names of specific investment bankers, that would satisfy readers of The Wall Street Journal (a publication whose ownership Murdoch craved). But at its heart, Wolff’s book is a good, old-fashioned family drama, a text that reads like a bonus “Cats in the Cradle” lyric.
Murdoch has six children, but it is his relationship with the middle three of them—sons Lachlan and James and daughter Elisabeth—that has long been the stuff of gossip in both the society pages and on the trading floor. “It is Murdoch’s deepest and most atavistic desire,” Wolff writes, “that one of his own will run the company in the future. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of all that none of his children is remotely qualified.” Jeremy Strong, who was in McKay’s The Big Short and who plays one of the Roy children in Succession, has said that he read Wolff’s book as part of his preparation for the role.
In some ways, Succession dovetails with the descriptions of the Murdoch family in Wolff’s book. Just as brothers Lachlan and James Murdoch are portrayed as having different personalities and expectations—Lachlan is meticulously and anxiously groomed for success, while James is outwardly amused by much of the corporate bluster—the brothers Kendall and Roman Roy, played by Strong and Kieran Culkin, are shown to have wildly differing priorities. (Culkin’s character is called Roman; Wolff writes that when James Murdoch wasn’t following around the Grateful Dead early in his adulthood, he spent time traipsing around Rome.) Alan Ruck plays Roy’s oldest son by a first marriage; he is a sorta-hippie with anger issues whose persona is not too dissimilar from Murdoch’s oldest child, a daughter named Prudence who Wolff describes as being “least afraid” of her dad.
When it comes to other details, life is even stranger than fiction. In Succession, Roy’s daughter, Siobhan, played by Sarah Snook, is involved with a goofy, thirsty striver who looks like a Manning brother but is played by British actor Matthew Macfadyen. In real life, Elisabeth Murdoch was married to a PR maven named Matthew Freud with famous bloodlines of his own. “What on earth is this baby going to be like,” Wolff quotes Anna Murdoch, Rupert’s second wife, as saying about the couple’s child, “with the blood of Rupert Murdoch and Sigmund Freud running about its veins?” And speaking of Anna, Succession has not yet mined for content the time when criminals tried to kidnap her, got confused by a loaned-out Rolls Royce, and abducted and killed the wrong woman.
Succession will no doubt be compared with a popular program on a competing network, Showtime’s Billions, given the way both of them depict the complicated, expensive problems of the 1 percent and delight in dancing to the tunes of the world’s smallest violins while doing so. (Both series feature similar scenes of one particularly decadent and upsetting meal.) Another aspect the two shows have in common: In the same way Succession could be assumed to be about Rupert Murdoch, Billions, particularly early on, felt a whole lot like the story of SAC Capital’s Steve Cohen, from its insider-trading plot all the way down to the art on the walls of its hedge fund set. But just as Billions has expanded beyond such specific confines, drawing from a deep well of other sources of financier inspiration, Succession, to hear its showrunner tell it, will do the same.
As Armstrong has pointed out, to flip the channel from Fox to CBS is to move from one network owned by an old dude who is struggling with his complicated family dynamics to another. In a 2007 piece about succession issues at the media conglomerate Viacom, the Los Angeles Times described a potential spiteful move by overlord Sumner Redstone to machinate a transfer of corporate ownership away from his daughter, Shari. “That would leave the companies without a Redstone at the top when the patriarch dies,” the Times reported. “Such an ending should come as no surprise to anyone who knows Sumner, who has long insisted that he would control them even from the grave. ‘I am Viacom’ is a favorite refrain of his.”
Less than a decade later, in early 2016, Redstone stepped down as executive chairman of Viacom and CBS after being evaluated by a geriatric psychiatrist in court. (The doctor’s findings were kept private, but Redstone’s rumored behavior included having “dozed and drooled” during a 2014 board meeting.) The question of when a leader is no longer fit to run their own company is one that Succession explores, and the Redstones are one of several influences that Armstrong and McKay point to when talking about the program.
Just last week, Shari Redstone was involved in a tense corporate board meeting that might as well have been ripped from the screenplay of Succession. And another subplot from the first season of the show, one having to do with the temptation and dangers of corporate debt, might have been drawn from the travails of another influential media bigwig, and the ramifications his actions had on his family. “I regret now that he didn’t die on his 65th birthday,” Elisabeth Maxwell, the widow of British media maven Robert Maxwell, told The New York Times in 1995, “because he would have died a hero.” Instead, eight months after purchasing the New York Daily News, Maxwell died a mysterious nautical death made even fishier by the shambles in which he left his empire. Maxwell had been shifting funds between entities, including his company’s pension funds, in order to disguise debts; two of his sons were tied up in court as prosecutors sought to untangle the damage their late father did. “He had a great many assets, the banks at his feet,” Elisabeth remarked. “I don’t think he was ever liked, but he was admired. What demons pushed him to acquire Macmillan? He didn’t need it. Why?”
The specific mention of Macmillan is a reminder that even this kingmaking industry is rooted in unglamorous work like textbook publishing, and that even these jet-setting chairmen are in the undignified business of jockeying for increasingly vanishing shelf space. But publishing and communications have long held an allure to proto-“influencers” with money to burn; being able to control the message is the hallmark of true power. Lately, the means of controlling the message have started to take on unsettling forms. But the nature of the people at the top have remained, in many ways, the same. This is still a family affair, whether that family is the Smiths, the secretive Marylanders who control the Sinclair syndicate of local broadcast networks, or the Mercers, whose investment in Cambridge Analytica was both disturbing and effective. One of the siblings on Succession chooses to work outside the family business, as a political strategist, a hint that the creators of Succession have more than just one specific family in mind.
“Families fall apart,” Wolff writes in The Man Who Owns the News. “Most in one generation, and virtually all, including the Bancrofts, within four.” The Bancroft family, who owned Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co, had grown so sprawling and distant that when Murdoch decided to launch a bid to buy the company, the Bancrofts communicated about it as if they were passing along the news of a snow day via an elementary school phone tree.
“New England liberals, earnest to a fault, dependable, clichéd, crunchy granola types,” is how Wolff taxonomizes one branch of the family. “Almost self-consciously middle-class, with many of them actually holding jobs,” is another. “The flashy side, the idle rich,” is how he describes a third faction. “Race car drivers, equestrians, people who live in Europe, all a bit embarrassing and confounding to the others.” Imagine the HBO show that delves into these characters—it could be as if Succession were done by David Milch! (Milch did shoot a pilot for HBO in 2014 called The Money that was about a Murdochlike patriarch, but it did not get picked up by the network.) But that’s what happens when you try to share something with family, whether it’s an heirloom grandfather clock or a lakeside cabin or a global financial empire. Eventually, everyone’s interests get diluted, and everyone’s tempers rise. If Succession is to be the latest in HBO’s long history of producing series that are at once hyperfocused and sprawling, it’s going to need enough material to last many seasons. And so the question of whether it’s specifically “about” Murdoch will become meaningless; at some point, it will have to be about more, and in fact it already is. Indeed, the biggest agents of chaos in Succession are characters who represent familial sprawl: one is a young, naive cousin; the other two are outsiders marrying in.
Earlier this year, Murdoch agreed to sell off a portion of 21st Century Fox to the Walt Disney Company. Sources told The New York Times that one of Murdoch’s sons, James, had “encouraged the deal, in part because he had grown weary of the dysfunctional push and pull with his brother and father.” But even Walt Disney himself has had his estate fall into controversy and infighting among his brood. Power works best when it is closely held, and families are designed to grow.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.