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What ‘Succession’ Gets That AOC Doesn’t

The writing and acting are always great, but the most compelling thing about each episode of “Succession,” HBO’s smash series about a warring Murdoch-esque family of media moguls, might still be the opening credits. Set to ominous chamber music, they show a child’s perspective of unfathomable wealth: upward-angle shots of well-appointed hallways and manicured grounds; brief glimpses of shadowy parental figures; tennis rackets and cigars and other trappings of upper-class life. The money shot, so to speak, comes toward the end, with a clang of piano keys and a brief clip of children riding precariously on top of an elephant. It’s cruel and rarefied recreation, and to the children on board, terrifying and dangerous and powerful all at once.

“Succession,” now in its third season, is the story of what happens to those children when they grow up, still cloistered in a world that prioritizes fortune and power over humanity. The four offspring of Logan Roy, the show’s Rupert Murdoch stand-in, are in their 30s, 40s and 50s now, sequestered in penthouses and ferried about in chauffeured cars and helicopters — and still fighting for the love of an aging, emotionally abusive father who might someday anoint one of them his successor. On one level, the show is pure family drama, documenting the Roy kids’ infighting and their talent for profane, inventive insults. But on another level, it’s an allegory about wealth as a ticket to misery — a metaphor for how we view the ultra-rich, and what we want from them.

“Succession” premiered in 2018, a time when conspicuous wealth had become top-of-mind in American politics: The Trumps were in the White House, tech billionaires were rewriting the ground rules of discourse, and the growing gap between the richest and the poorest was drawing comparisons to the Gilded Age. The show explores how wealth so fully permeates the Roys’ lives that they barely seem aware of how they’re moving through the world: In one recent episode, Logan and his estranged son Kendall are so loath to be in each other’s presence that they take separate private helicopters, and then separate private jets, to a meeting on the same private island. Another time, some activist shareholders propose to eliminate the company’s use of private jets, and one of the sons is filled with palpable horror: “First they came for the PJs, and I said nothing.”

It’s that kind of imagined attitude, in a country with a crumbling infrastructure and a patchy safety net, that has added to recent calls for a wealth tax, and a tendency to equate obscene wealth with unseemly character. “It shouldn’t make a difference whether you have real estate, or whether you have cash or whether you have a bazillion shares of Amazon. Yes, Jeff Bezos, I’m looking at you,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said on CNBC in July, talking about her proposed “ultra-millionaire” tax. The audience for “Succession,” a prestige-TV drama that features a Fox News parody called ATN, is likely educated and Democratic-leaning, sympathetic to Warren’s proposal or Larry Summers’ musings that he isn’t taxed enough.

But class warfare has always been a difficult thing to legislate. Despite polls that show a majority of support for it, no lawmaker has succeeded at turning the idea of a wealth tax into law. Earlier this month, Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon became the latest to fail when he introduced a billionaires’ tax to President Joe Biden’s spending package. It lasted a day in the bill.

That’s partly because of debates about legality and effectiveness. (The Roys, with their army of lawyers, are the embodiment of the argument that people with the resources to qualify for a wealth tax would also have the resources to avoid it.) But maybe it’s partly because, as the popularity of “Succession” suggests, Americans can imagine a swifter, more satisfying fate for the ultra-rich.

The Roys might be myopically powerful; in the most recent episode, they hold court in a hotel room at a conservative confab and presume to choose the next GOP nominee for president. But the real point of the show is that they’re powerfully miserable. Every episode finds them clawing for love that doesn’t come, undercutting each other at every turn, embarrassing themselves in front of people who are eager to see them fail. The show is a cautionary tale — or maybe, to viewers, a happy fable — about how wealth is a ticket to misery. In a world where money talks and policy isn’t certain to change, at least the Roys offer a kind of catharsis. They’re still on a teetering elephant ride, and those of us who will never reach those heights are eagerly watching the struggle — and finding it as delicious as the fall.

American television has always featured more than its share of wealth: soap operas about rich families, reality series about the millionaire lifestyle, sitcoms featuring apartments far too fancy for their middle-class inhabitants. That’s partly because television is a commercial medium, and advertisers have an interest in showing consumption, says Jason Mittell, a professor of American studies at Middlebury College and the author of the upcoming book Television and American Culture. It’s partly because wealth is aspirational: Who wouldn’t want to imagine themselves amid the impeccable clothes and luxury décor? Even the kids’ shows on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have long peddled the dream of a rich kid’s life: tweens living in a luxury hotel, on a yacht or in a New York penthouse, where every material wish is at their disposal.

Still, the way wealth is portrayed on TV has changed over time, in keeping with the mood of the nation. “Dynasty” and “Dallas,” the wildly popular 1980s prime-time soaps, were a celebration of conspicuous consumption: the gowns, the jewels, the grand staircases. Those shows were aspirational, but also relatable, Mittell notes, half eye candy and half familiar family drama. Even the Kardashians, who have flaunted their wealth on reality TV since 2007, have garden-variety family squabbles that always seem to end with declarations of mutual love. They’re unhappy in all of the ordinary ways: just like us, with bigger clothing budgets.

But the very, very rich in 2021 objectively aren’t like us: They’re rewriting the rules of society and commerce, and literally blasting themselves into space. The difference between life at the top and the bottom is stark. So it’s no surprise that today’s popular TV would offer a more caustic take on wealth. “Squid Game,” the South Korean drama that lit up Netflix this fall, portrays an international cabal of cruel, one-dimensional rich people who have no qualms about killing humans for sport. On the sunnier side, there’s “Schitt’s Creek,” a Canadian sitcom that found a new life on Netflix, about a rich family that falls from grace, gets its comeuppance and finds redemption. “White Lotus,” an HBO series about the indignities of the wealth gap, sent the message that fighting back is futile: Whenever less-privileged characters on a posh Hawaiian resort try to undercut the obnoxiously wealthy guests, the plans backfire and the rich wind up stronger.

The Roys aren’t as bad as the nameless VIPs on “Squid Game,” but they are connected to number of crimes, from manslaughter to sexual assault. (In a recent episode, siblings Roman and Shiv sit in a glass-walled office and wisecrack about the company’s response to sexual assault accusations: “Yeah, yeah, we get it already, stop moaning about the rapes,” Shiv quips.) And, unlike the Rose family of “Schitt’s Creek,” the Roys don’t seem destined to become better people; if anything, they’ve grown more despicable as the walls have closed in. This season — mild spoiler alert — Shiv eagerly accepts her husband’s offer to take the fall for corporate crimes. Kendall buys his kids a bunny, then effectively instructs the babysitter to kill it by feeding it a bagel. Cousin Greg, an outsider whose upbringing was merely upper-middle-class, is now so swept up in the world of wealth that, when he learns of his grandfather’s plans to bequeath his estate to charity, he considers suing Greenpeace for his rightful inheritance.

“Thirty years ago, a show like this would have had to have at least one or two characters in the family that felt like they were the good ones, who were trying to reform things,” Mittell says. In the case of the Roys, “not only are they uniformly horrible people, but they don’t even enjoy the money that they have.”

That’s perhaps the biggest contrast between “Succession” and other shows about wealth: Nothing about being rich here looks particularly fun. In a recent article in the Ringer, the show’s cinematographers and set designers described their goal of making every setting look undesirable: The exteriors are bleak, the interiors either claustrophobic or sharp-edged, empty and lonely. When a powerful investor urges the Roys to take a walk on his private island — “It’s so beautiful it’s disgusting,” he brags about the scenery — he ends up leading them through brush so bland and nondescript that he gets lost trying to find his way home. When Kendall describes plans for his 40th birthday bash, it literally sounds like a party from hell: “End Times: Weimar meets Carthage meets Dante meets AI and antibiotic-resistant superbugs.” Even the clothes aren’t aspirational; Shiv, Logan’s only daughter, dresses with a certain glamour, but it’s usually within the realm of boxy corporatewear.

The bleak aesthetics confer a kind of misery on the characters at a time when the rest of society seems powerless to stop them. For the most part, families as wealthy and powerful as the Roys occupy a space that is “above scrutiny and above surveillance and above accountability,” says Laura Grindstaff, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis whose research focuses on American TV and popular culture. That’s particularly true, she says, with a family business that has such direct control over public opinion. “These media moguls can create their own realities: their own universe or reality where they can behave however they want and never have to feel bad about it.”

So “Succession” steps in to impose some emotional punishment. For the Roys, money isn’t just the backdrop for misery, but the cause of it. We see all the ways that growing up with infinite wealth has stunted their emotional growth and their ability to relate to the rest of the world. Kendall is so ensconced in a bubble of self-importance that he can’t see himself from the outside; he keeps courting humiliation, whether he’s doing cringey white-guy rap at a corporate event or hobnobbing with the staff of a late-night comedy show, not noticing when they roll their eyes. Shiv, who inherited her father’s calculating steeliness, abandons her political principles to curry her father’s favor, losing the respect of her former left-wing friends; the most recent episode hints that she might be complicit in handing the country over to a right-wing autocrat. Roman is impotent — in both the family business and the bedroom. Connor, Logan’s oldest son, is so deluded he thinks he could be president, absent any apparent skill, experience or charisma. Logan still refuses to believe that he’ll ever have to give up his absolute power. They abuse and undercut each other with every conversation. You cringe as you watch them twist the knife into themselves.

The success of a show that revels in the sorrows of being rich might even hold a lesson in political messaging for the likes of Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). If “Succession” leaves Americans feeling that they don’t want to be quite as wealthy as the Roys — that it’s better to occupy some comfortable but less excessive spot on the prosperity spectrum — then scolding, “soak the rich” rhetoric might not carry the day.

“Succession” does seem to promise an eventual downfall for the Roys, imposed from outside. The Department of Justice is circling. The key shareholders are close to mutiny. And health scares keep creeping up on Logan; in a recent episode, his untreated urinary tract infection causes him to hallucinate, conjuring an absent wife and a dead cat at a moment when the company could use his full attention. There are hints that the Roys’ brand of inherited corporate power won’t be a long-term match against other types of power: political power, judicial power, the power of new money, the power of time and mostly, the power of their own self-delusion.

Until the ruin comes, though, “Succession” lets us revel in the Roys’ exquisite misery, savoring every insult and rant and self-inflicted abasement. It’s not the poor punishing the rich, or the less-rich punishing the very rich. It’s the rich punishing themselves. Maybe that’s their tax.

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