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Forget ‘Roseanne’—Trump’s America Is in ‘Succession’

Like ‘Arrested Development,’ HBO’s new drama tells the saga of a rich and powerful man’s terrible offspring. But this one is no laughing matter.

HBO/Netflix/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

The first episode of Succession turns a $750,000 wristwatch—a Patek Philippe—into a hot potato. It begins as a gift. The corporate climber Tom is marrying into the obscenely wealthy Roy family, and he means to buy the daunting patriarch Logan Roy a birthday gift that confirms his comprehension of old money and highbrow culture. Desperately, Tom strives to belong. Tom’s fiancee, Siobhan Roy, has warned him that her father appreciates few material possessions, including the most heartfelt gifts, and so Tom shouldn’t think too hard about what, exactly, Logan might like; just make sure it confirms his status in the simplest terms. Hence, the Patek Philippe. Tom presents the boxed wristwatch to Logan Roy as his immediate family scrambles about his Manhattan penthouse, their presents neglected, the affections deferred as the family talks business instead. By episode’s end, Logan has passed the Patek Philippe on to another family altogether.

As far as the show’s premise and characters go, Succession recalls an otherwise very different TV series, Arrested Development—the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together. If the flagging Roy family patriarch is the George Sr., then the leading son, Kendall Roy, played by Jeremy Strong, is the Michael Bluth; the disastrous son, Roman Roy, played by Kieran Culkin, is the G.O.B.; the offbeat daughter, Siobhan Roy, played by Sarah Snook, is the Lindsay Bluth; and Tom, played by Matthew Macfadyen, does indeed resemble the doofus son-in-law Tobias Fünke whenever he panics and cries. Truly, the resemblances are uncanny, if not deliberate. The characters of both shows are dark and unlikable in similar ways, but the respective genres differ sharply: Arrested Development is a comedy and Succession is a drama. Indeed, the latter show is a supposedly unwitting dramatization of the Murdoch family, which runs prominent news and entertainment businesses in the U.S., U.K., and Australia. Much as the Murdochs oversee 21st Century Fox, the Roy family runs a diversified entertainment portfolio, their subsidiaries ranging from right-wing news to family theme parks. Unlike the Bluth family’s California real estate enterprise, the Roy family business is a global enterprise with a billion-dollar footprint and ambitions that are far more formidable, and darker, than George Sr.’s calamitous foray into Iraq.

Succession begins with Logan Roy stumbling from his bed toward a bathroom in the dark, pissing on a rug that he mistakes for a toilet; clearly, he’s suffering from dementia. Logan’s most ambitious and sensible son, Kendall, seems destined to inherit control of the family business any minute now. As a senior executive within the company—and the leading candidate for chief executive upon his father’s retirement—Kendall moves to acquire a burgeoning web concern in hopes that the company will one day dominate online publishing. But he struggles. Kendall talks big, but he’s not his father; his employees know this, his business partners know this, his rivals know this, his siblings knows this, and his father knows this most of all. So Kendall Roy—an overworked closer recovering from a marriage-ending cocaine addiction—must overcome his father’s reputation, and his interference, through unrelenting force of will. Through Kendall’s suffering, and through the Roy family’s broader miseries, Succession renders wealth at once repulsive and attractive. The series glamorizes a broken family in the extreme, only to shame and ridicule them for being rich instead of the viewer—and that powerless condescension, it seems, is the fundamental appeal of so much new money porn and old money porn, alike. Wealth, Succession suggests, is best enjoyed at this safe and unrealistic distance.

The Roy family all jockey for Logan’s favor while scheming new balances of power in the event of his retirement, medical incapacitation, or death—all potential outcomes Kendall seems to welcome. Again, these are deeply unlikable people, their transcendent wealth sparing most of them—save for Siobhan and Marcia—any overwhelming sense of decency or righteous political concerns. The show doesn’t bother to intellectualize its conservatism; Logan, Roman, and the interloper Tom repeatedly admit that they only mean to horde as much cash as humanly possible, and their political commitments follow entirely from that premise. In this sense, Succession is the most honest dramatization of Trump voters that Hollywood is yet to produce, a far more accurate and brutal account of Trumpism’s whims, and its key demographic, than the recently cancelled Roseanne.

The Roy family’s elitism is nasty and brutish. In general, Succession provokes laughs only to force the viewer to swallow them seconds later. Where Arrested Development, as comedy, humiliates its rich idiots in adorable fashion, Succession reserves greater humiliation for the workers who scurry around them—beneath them. There’s no love whatsoever among these people, but there’s indeed a strong sense of familiarity, and perverse affection, especially between select pairs of the relatives, such as the awkward pretender Tom and the low-class, black-sheep cousin Greg; the hedonist Roman and the bleeding-heart Siobhan; and the overeager Kendall and his hard, hectoring father. The central relationship—between Logan and Kendall—resembles so much dark, portending lore about Fred and Donald Trump, two insatiable social climbers who raised vicious, inadequate sons.

The Patek Philippe is Tom’s gift to Logan, but the $750,000 wristwatch is lost on all of these people. Toward the end of the series premiere, the Roy family play softball together on rented grounds. Urgently, Kendall is forced to take off, and so Roman Roy calls out to a lone family of bystanders at the parking lot. Smirking, he pulls his checkbook from his jacket, offering the family $1 million on the spot if their son hits a home run in one try. The Latino American parents, presumably working class folks, send their eager son to take a fateful swing at a new life. The young man connects, he runs, and—alas—he’s out on third base. It’s an excruciating moment—the young man has deprived his family, and Roman has addressed this unsuspecting family as if they’re hired help. As a consolation prize—which is to say, a bribe—Logan Roy presents the family with two contingent effects: a non-disclosure agreement for them to sign, and the Patek Philippe. The watch means little to Logan Roy, who knows precisely what the heirloom will signify to virtually anyone but his own family: the American Dream, which suggests that wealth—not just money, but fortune—is within any great hustler’s immediate grasp. Even if it’s only a generation away.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.