A TV news network throws in with a far-right presidential candidate and declares him the next president. The network is ATN, a fictionalized Fox News from HBO’s Succession that makes its money off Republican causes and has supported the candidate, Jeryd Mencken, throughout the election. At a crucial juncture, ATN calls Wisconsin for Mencken, knowing his partisans have set fire to ballots that promised to tilt the state Democratic. Succession concludes without revealing the official outcome of what will be a contested national election, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. When characters refer to Mencken as a fascist, they do so with little of the sarcasm that typifies the drama’s justifiably celebrated dialogue. All at once, we are no longer laughing.
But the fact that we’re not expresses more than a sudden topic-appropriate solemnity. Succession struggles tonally in its final episodes. It whipsaws unevenly—alternately sentimental and ruthlessly clear-eyed—between familial and national politics. It’s as if, in staging Mencken’s ascent, the drama runs up against the political limits of its otherwise adroit combination of social satire and personal tragedy, and perhaps against the political limits of prestige TV.
Over the last two-plus decades, many of our most celebrated dramas and comedies have turned with more sympathy than we might have expected to reactionary politics. In part, that reflects prestige TV’s oft-noted commitment to unsavory antiheroes. But prestige TV has fed its presumptively liberal audiences a steady diet of illiberal fare, and Succession forces us to ask why—and what that TV can and cannot manage when turning to such subjects.
I do not think fascism is too serious a subject to be made into filmed entertainment. And while Jesse Armstrong has publicly worried his willingness to profit from the white nationalism his drama draws upon, my own view is, that’s between him and his conscience. Certainly nothing that follows should be understood to question his motives or commitments. And I do not claim to perceive in Succession any programmatic sympathy for fascism. Rather, I claim that Succession and prestige TV generally portray reactionary politics in idiosyncratically personal and ultimately humanizing registers as a function of their commitment to treating families that way. Succession seems designed for highly educated urbanites who look up at the Roys’ skyscraping affluence from many floors below. It is schadenfreude for dutiful professional elites who might long for feudal power but who walk a more self-consciously responsible and meritocratic path. But Shiv, Roman, and Kendall are audience surrogates nevertheless, never so much as in the comforting stories they tell themselves about their ability to love Logan Roy—the patriarch of the family business, Waystar Royco, which owns ATN—while maintaining a healthy distance from the ugliness that he sponsors.
Prestige TV viewers tell themselves a version of that story. We thrill to these antiheroes, but they do not define us. Indeed, we might believe, to quote Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, that these programs express liberalism’s healthy dependence on culture that does not “confirm us in the social and political ideals which we hold.”1 Liberalism can only outwardly endorse reason and virtue, Trilling thought; as a consequence, the midcentury middle class found the darker emotions it needed in reactionary writers like Yeats, Eliot, and Lawrence.
But it’s reasonable to ask some 75 years later if we are not well past Trilling’s dynamic—if indeed it ever obtained. The darker emotions he thought essential to a healthy liberalism are no longer safely contained, if ever they were, in the cheap modernist paperbacks with which a white middle class complemented its participation in a rationalized Keynesian-Fordist state. Over the last 25 years, upmarket television has turned with increasing frequency to the aggrieved populism that now defines the American right. In so doing, it has baffled risibly hoary distinctions between high and low. But it still clings to midcentury aesthetic ideals and social pieties, as if it could save us all by dint of the well-wrought complexity and compassion with which it treats nuclear families above all.
Families can seem to demand that treatment because they are all we have. “Who is society?” Margaret Thatcher famously asked in 1987. “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.” Prestige TV tends to confirm that neoliberal dogma. Thus Logan insists: “Most things don’t exist. The Ford Motor Company hardly exists. It’s just a time-saving expression for a collection of financial interests. But this exists, because—Family. It’s a family. We are a family.” The sentiment does not exactly comfort: however real, the Roy family eats its own on an almost mythical scale. But it’s the only meal in town, notwithstanding the riches in question. And across prestige TV as a whole, family has become unavoidable and damaging in equal measure. It is the individual’s last best hope, the only remaining collective. Yet it does not sustain; it actively destroys.
In capturing that tension with often startling compassion, Succession might be said to display a cruelly optimistic attachment to the heteronormative family, which has been a key site of capitalist oppression for centuries. Indeed, prestige TV generally has been fairly criticized for romancing the gendered division of labor with which that family has traditionally reproduced itself, above all, by treating its toxic male antiheroes with complexity and humanity. But Succession also advances a much more specific class project that turns on the legal and political status of the family business. And its treatment of family businesses is the most immediately practical source of prestige TV’s uncomfortable political complicities.
The Sopranos, Weeds, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Americans, Ozark, Big Love, Six Feet Under: all of these series and many more—as I argue in Second Lives: Black-Market Melodramas and the Reinvention of Television—depict the daily struggles of families that are also business units. These family businesses, more often than not, operate in black markets and informal economies.
Their ostensibly liberal sympathies notwithstanding, these dramas align with the American right in what Melinda Cooper calls “an insurrection of one form of capitalism against another: the private, unincorporated, and family-based versus the corporate, publicly traded, and shareholder-owned.” Trump’s populism pitted small businesses against corporate capitalism and the decadent coastal elites it allegedly serves. But his “ideal entrepreneurial form was not simply the small business, but the small family business,” explains Cooper, “whose natural labor hierarchies and personalized property relations stood in contrast to the suspect anonymity of the corporation.” The right’s commitment to the family business has been consequential. Republicans used it to push through a tax law favorable to S corporations. And, crucially, the benefits of that tax law were not limited to small families: today, hedge funds, private equity firms, and real estate partnerships file as pass-through entities to take advantage of tax rates well lower than those that apply to the default-structure C corporations. Vast sums of money have changed hands, and political aisles, as a result. The right’s commitment to the family business has been just as consequential ideologically. That commitment makes it possible, Cooper writes, to reimagine “the blue-collar producer” as “an aspirational small business owner rather than a wage worker—a slippage that helps explain the American right’s strangely capacious understanding of the working class today.”
That elision is hardly confined to the American right: ever since The Sopranos, prestige TV has naturalized the labor hierarchies and property relations of family businesses while embracing ostensibly blue-collar entrepreneurs who struggle against an invasive and frequently hostile state. As David Chase put it, The Sopranos had no “authority figures” who were “looking out for us,” no well-intentioned “doctors. Judges. Lawyers. Cops.”2 The Sopranos acknowledges no authority except paternal authority. It is absolutely right to debate whether, ultimately, that drama or its heirs celebrated or exposed toxic masculinity. Even so, prestige TV consistently collapses a man’s patriarchal authority over his family with the contractual authority that employers enjoy over their employees. Whether in The Sopranos and Breaking Bad or Yellowstone and Succession, there is no meaningful difference between these forms of authority.
Most prestige TV has represented familial and business paternalism as essentially the same, in other words, while setting that doubled authority against state-sanctioned institutions and a mandarin liberal establishment. Prestige TV’s red-blooded fathers are almost always blue collar in spirit, no matter how rich, precisely and only because they are counterpunching, scrappy entrepreneurs at war with federal agencies and struggling desperately to maintain their family’s threatened autonomy. But they are capitalists at all, still more fundamentally, because and just like they are fathers.
A familiar two-step results: if a family business makes it possible to understand family life as “just business,” and a bruising one at that, then those same businesses subtly transform our understanding of capitalist enterprise. Family businesses rewrite the exploitations of the wage relation into the gendered expropriations of family life. And in addition to naturalizing waged exploitation, that revision enjoins a quiescent posture: we might well justifiably hate our bosses, but we should strive to do so with the compassion, generosity, and heightened sense of personal culpability with which, ideally, we hate our fathers.
Antiheroes are not “fair and balanced” in the way that news networks ideally are. Their function is less to solicit judgment than to win acceptance. TV watching is intimacy deepened over time.
Note, for example, the melancholy fondness the drama betrays for Logan Roy, both in his son Kendall’s eulogy and at a private screening of home videos soon after his death. What interests me is less the fondness per se than what it suggests about the premium that prestige TV places on core familial emotions, which it strives to depict with empathy and nuance. This is an art form that accords family bonds a sacrosanct centrality and aspires to a judicious complexity when treating those bonds. Even as Succession exposes Logan’s sadistic narcissism—and the political affinities that follow from it—the show cannot but lionize his hardscrabble origins and the outsize imprint he left upon the world. Above all, it cannot but ask us to mourn him, as if he were a family member we hated and yet also loved.
Succession is at pains to insist Logan is irreplaceable. He dies just before the election, and his kids, in over their scheming, unserious heads, debate how to call Wisconsin. Roman wants ATN to announce for Mencken, while Shiv and Kendall express different degrees of reservation. Collectively, they are responsible, and the drama does not sugarcoat that fact.
But if Succession does not exonerate them, it does not exactly condemn them either. After all, none of the kids actively embraces Mencken’s ideas. Right-wing politics are for them a business, or so they think. In truth, they are each in their way driven by the contingency of pathological family dynamics. “Hurt people hurt people,” is how one reviewer aptly summarized the drama’s not entirely satisfying takeaway, as it leaves us, no longer laughing, on the doorstep of fascism.
That might be uncharitable. And Succession might be said self-consciously to ask, rather than preemptively conclude, how fully we can or should separate the Roys from the politics they endorse—in their collective actions rather than in their hearts. But the drama is at its most contradictory when answering that question. On the one hand, it enjoins us to understand and feel, say, for the irredeemably broken siblings. But on the other, it reveals (in a not-entirely critical way) the unthought, practical class affinities that collectively bind the otherwise well-intentioned to reactionary causes that they would outwardly disown.
Indeed, we might find ourselves at drama’s end unable to escape a suspicion that the Roys’ flirtation with fascism cannot be so easily explained away—and that, in watching this program, we have been flirting with fascism ourselves.
A Brief History of Prestige TV Republicans
One way to show how Succession exemplifies prestige TV’s problems as a whole is to note just how many prestige protagonists throw in with jackbooted thugs. On Breaking Bad, The Plot Against America, Westworld, Peaky Blinders, and The Man in the High Castle, for example, leads work with Nazis and neo-Nazis, furthering their aims even when seeming to hate them.3
But self-declared Nazis are not essential in prestige TV’s romance with the right. In the last season of The Sopranos, A.J. explains to Tony that he hopes upon returning from Afghanistan to fly helicopters for Donald Trump. The offhand remark has since seemed prescient, for although The Sopranos appeared at the end of the Clinton administration and later struck many as a fittingly dark expression of George W. Bush’s 9/11 presidency, still later it seemed to anticipate Trump’s. Even as pundits called out Trump’s mafioso behavior, critics noted he and Soprano were each an “unsettled white man raging against the erosion of his power,” as Brett Martin put it in a Vanity Fair article titled “How Tony Soprano Paved the Way for Donald Trump.” And as the Trump presidency drew to a close, Joanna Weiss noted in Politico, “These past five years” were like “a prestige cable drama, the kind built around a powerful antihero” “simmering with rage.” Viewers binged Trump as they had these dramas: his “fiercest hate-watchers and biggest fans followed his moves and tweets the way addicted viewers do: incapable of looking away, driven to rehash and recount every sordid moment.”
“Incapable of looking away”: that is axial to prestige viewership, and I’ll return to it. First, I’d note just how sustained prestige TV’s flirtation with Trump country has been. On Mad Men, Don Draper votes for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy. That may have meaningfully registered on which side of the aisle prestige antiheroes would tend to line up. But it nevertheless gestured to a version of the Republican Party that, by the drama’s 2007 airing, no longer really mattered. Big Love’s odyssey through Mormon fundamentalism and Bill Henrickson’s decision to run for Utah State Senate as a Republican get us closer. So too do dramas that turn sympathetically to hinterland incorrigibles, whom urban progressives might otherwise disdain. Sons of Anarchy explores rural California biker gangs. Justified takes viewers to Kentucky coal country. Ozark is even more revealing: this allegory of Bill and Hillary Clinton deposits two Chicago liberals in Arkansas, where they become embroiled in a right-wing conspiracy to install voting machines that will disenfranchise Democratic constituencies.4 They resist that plot and learn to rely on local ne’er-do-wells, but in doing so they stand revealed in their own murderous self-interest. Then there are Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, master classes in the suppurating resentments that secretly bind entitled professional elites to white nationalists. Walter White and Saul Goodman don’t think in openly political terms, but they are prototypical Trump voters. Fueled by a brash and anarchic populism, they are convinced they have been wronged by establishment actors. In White’s case, that aggrieved posture assumes unavoidable racial overtones; Walter’s entitlement, the drama implies, is inseparable from his whiteness. In both cases, the protagonists proudly reject the moral pieties and aesthetic sensibilities of an ostensibly dominant social order from which they feel they have been unjustly excluded.
Succession traces that populism back to its media wellsprings: Murdoch’s global empire, and Fox News specifically, which has shaped Anglo-American reaction as no other news outlet ever has. One tendency in responding to the drama has been to overstress the alienating effects of the Roys’ wealth, arguing that we can’t possibly identify with the family because of its obscene fortune. Indeed, it’s tempting to say their wealth makes bitter populists of us all; longing for riches and access we know we will never enjoy, we watch as conspiracy theorists only dimly discerning History’s real engine. But in fact, it matters fundamentally that Logan, like White and Goodman, thinks himself a blue-collar counterpuncher, striking back at pretentious establishment values from below. The drama’s appeal—and prestige TV’s appeal generally—derives in no small part from the audience access that posture allows.
The same might be said of the corporate family melodrama to which Succession is most indebted: Dallas. J. R. modeled a new class order as it emerged from the wholesale financialization of Anglo-American capitalism in the 1980s. And if J. R. expressed long-standing cultural and regional antipathies between South and North, oil and Wall Street money, he also expressed the neoliberal ascendence of quantity over quality, in which elite caste status came to depend more on how much money one had than on the refinement one displayed spending it.
These two features were of course related: Reagan’s election signaled the arrival of a Republican Party steeped in the legacy of Barry Goldwater and increasingly hostile to cultured elites. In the 1980s, as David Harvey notes, a new ownership class detached itself from the traditional markers of inherited wealth—taste, cultivation, breeding—and, above all, anything that signified English gentility.5 Serialized in 1976 from an Arthur Hailey novel, The Moneychangers dramatized succession struggles within a national bank. But today that melodrama feels strikingly different from the corporate family melodramas that would emerge soon after: in 1976, it was still possible to pit the admirably liberal everyman banker (Kirk Douglas) against the repugnantly conservative and effetely Anglophilic one (Christopher Plummer). By the 1980s, that conservative archetype was on the way out as a pop culture signifier of right-wing politics.
Rupert Murdoch was a key tribune of the emergent class order. His tabloid sensibility made it easy for plebes to identify with aristocrats, who were revealed in turn to be every bit as base (and fun) as the workers they blithely hired and fired. The balance tilted back to Ernest Hemingway, who is reported to have quipped, in response to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that the rich are different from you and me, “Yes, they have more money.” If this wasn’t an entirely new position (when had the rich not been scheming yahoos, just like us?) it was, on programs like Dallas, embraced with a novel glee.
Indeed, the triumph of wealth quantity over wealth quality—and the implied moral equivalence of rich and poor—brings with it an exonerating origin story: corporate family melodramas often suggest that if the rich are evil, they were made so by capitalism. As Ellen Seiter noted decades ago, J. R. and Blake Carrington “have only learned how to hurt others out of an instinct for survival. The abundance of villainy on Dallas and Dynasty suggests that they have made the only possible adjustment to the dog-eat-dog world of oil barons, they are merely doing what they have to in order to maintain their power.”6
As the preceding might suggest, I am sympathetic, albeit in limited ways, to Robert Samuels’s claim that liberals watch prestige TV as “obsessional narcissists [who] seek to maintain a positive self-image by repressing their transgressive anti-social fantasies and projecting their ambivalent desires into the safe realm of fantasy and popular culture.” But I disagree with his reductive aesthetic distinctions and class analysis—if it can be called that. For Samuels, prestige TV creates “a strict opposition between the elites and the masses” that “only intensifies the sense of upper-middle class liberal snobbery” that drives these programs.
In fact, as Samuels himself intermittently recognizes, prestige TV consistently romances and allies itself to a proudly brash, down-market antiestablishment populism. And rather than simply attribute that populism to “the masses,” as Samuels does, prestige TV delights in finding such values in a resurgent right.
That is why the Murdochs and Fox News lurk so meaningfully behind Succession’s Roys. But Samuels seems not to understand how the Roys signify politically. He thinks that Logan, “the father and the owner of the corporation, presents the dying, old conservative order.” And he thinks, more specifically, that Waystar Royco stands in for that order, because it is a family-controlled enterprise: “Since he runs a family-owned business, [Logan] portrays mostly an older model of capitalism as his children seek to drag him into a new age of digital capital and shareholder finance.”7
That is categorically incorrect: Waystar Royco does not signify an older capitalism because it is a family business. Instead—like much of prestige TV generally—Succession engages a thriving conservatism precisely because it is centered on a family business.
The Inability to Look Away
David Chase and Vince Gilligan professed surprise that fans seemed actually to like the murderous male leads around which their dramas turned. That surprise risked disingenuity; The Sopranos and Breaking Bad succeed in part because of the precision with which their creators calibrated what attracted and repelled in Soprano and White respectively. Prestige antiheroes depend on that balance. It was reasonable to worry, as Chase and Gilligan did, that their monsters attracted more than they repelled; they were built, so to speak, to induce paralyzing ambivalence—an inability to look away.
But antiheroes are not “fair and balanced” in the way that news networks ideally are. Their function is less to solicit judgment than to win acceptance. TV watching is intimacy deepened over time. And on the whole, familiarity breeds not contempt but resigned embrace—the sort of acceptance, that is, which we often extend to our families.
Melodramas like Succession recast ostensibly historical traumas as timeless familial ones. The oedipal agon between fathers and sons. The sublimated sexual energies of fathers and daughters. In this spirit, the drama’s title might be said to invoke two conflicting senses of the word succession. The first designates a leadership change. Who will follow Logan as head of Waystar Royco? Who will follow the Raisin as president? Thus does the drama activate recognizably political registers. But the second sense might simply mean the sequence of one damn thing after another, the emphasis falling not on who succeeds whom, for example, but on the fact of timeless repetition.
That repetition is not always familial. Season 1 wraps up with a wedding, and Kendall seeming to drown. Season 3 wraps up with a wedding, and Kendall seeming to drown. The last season wraps with a corporate wedding, and Kendall contemplating water. These repetitions conspire with the familial inevitability in which the drama unabashedly trades. The Roy children are drawn like moths to their daddy’s flame, wanting but failing to win his love and approval, replicating the same bruising family dynamics over and over. As children always have, over and over again. Nothing is learned and nothing is changed. But who can blame them? Logan was their dad.
- Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (New York Review of Books, 2008), p. 301. ↩
- Quoted in Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond, edited by Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (I. B. Tauris, 2007), p. 214. ↩
- See also Meghan O’Keefe, “There Are Too Many Alt-History Nazi Stories on TV Right Now.” ↩
- Ryan Zickgraf, “Was Ozark Actually About the Clintons?”, Jacobin, May 17, 2022. ↩
- David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 31. ↩
- Ellen Seiter, “Men, Sex and Money in Recent Family Melodramas,” Journal of the University Film and Video Association, vol. 35, no. 1 (Winter 1983), p. 25. ↩
- Robert Samuels, Political Pathologies from The Sopranos to Succession: Prestige TV and the Contradictions of the “Liberal” Class (Routledge, 2023), pp. 3, 5, 105. ↩