On watching Succession
The last refuge of 21st century American office tech culture
Art: Family of the Businessman B. H. Strousberg, Ludwig Knaus (1870)
The first weekend of The Plague, when I thought I actually had The Plague, I was watching Star Wars on loop because I needed to watch something soothing where people projected confidence.
This week, as we’ve settled into what’s going to become the new normal for at least the next few months, I was ready to tackle something new, and my husband and I have started watching Succession, which is all about how people who are handed all the possible advantages in life to be competent and in-control, are completely out of control.
The series …. focuses on the brood of one Logan Roy (Brian Cox), head of Waystar Royco, a conglomerate that looks something like News Corp or National Amusements, depending on whether you peg Logan as a Rupert Murdoch or Sumner Redstone type.
He's got four children, each delightfully dysfunctional in his or her own way. There's Kendall (Jeremy Strong), a recovering addict and the most serious of the bunch who at first seems like the apparent heir. He's joined by Roman (Kieran Culkin), the insecure youngest brother who shields himself by being an unrepentant asshole slacker who loves the sound of his own voice. Their sister is Siobhan (Sarah Snook), nicknamed Shiv, a wry political strategist with a boisterous Midwestern weirdo of a fiancée Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) who runs the amusement parks department of Waystar Royco. Then there's Connor (Alan Ruck), Logan's child from a couple of marriages ago, a weird hybrid of a crunchy granola environmentalist and a strident capitalist in denial about the fact that his girlfriend is an escort-slash-playwright who doesn’t really care all that much about him.
It’s one thing for people to be incompetent. After all, as Frank Underwood (who unfortunately I now have a hard time quoting because of how terrible Kevin Spacey is in real life) brilliantly said, “Competence is a rare bird in the woods.” Just showing up on-time and ready to take notes already puts you ahead of 80% of the pack in any given situation, both in business and life.
It’s another thing when your competence is also tied to your economic influence. The Roys have billions of dollars, and so their incompetence, arrogance, and family drama ricochets throughout the entire economy. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s pretty much what’s happening now in our own economy among the titans of industry and politicians alike, the only difference being that much less stressful to watch the Roys continuously fail because their failure doesn’t affect how long I’m going to have to stay home, work and watch my children simultaneously, and re-watch the attack on the Death Star.
Anyway! One of the smaller things that I really love about the show is how accurately it portrays the zeitgeist of the 21st century office culture in America (which, as far as we know, is now dead in the water).
I am a sucker for shows that get the details exactly right, as I wrote a long time ago about watching Silicon Valley:
All the right signals, the ones that say, “Trust Mike Judge, he knows what he’s doing,” are there. For example, the main character constantly wears a hoodie. This is a blatant nod to Zuckerberg, but also signals the fact that Richard is very insecure. Or, it could mean that he’s just wants to be like every other dude from 25-50 working in tech, all of who wear casual clothes as much as possible. The way everyone else on the show dresses also gives signals. People who wear jeans but really nice shirts that make it seem like they’re not really wearing jeans are executives. People wearing shirts with startup logos are broke and don’t have money to do laundry.
Second, the technology is correct. When I saw the teaser trailer, I did a double-take. A guy had an HTML5 shirt. HTML5 is an actual thing! It’s not something that the producers made up! And what’s even cooler is that HTML5 is the new hotness right now, so it’s actually relevant, as well.
I guess what I like most is that Judge made a smart show filled with accuracy to the people like me who are pedantic about it. He’s trying to appeal to a mass audience, but he’s really speaking to people who know the industry and can vouch for it. Details matter.
So one of the things that’s really resonated with me is how accurately the show gets American capitalism right.
Roman, portrayed by Kieran Culkin, is kind of like a foil character who in some ways mirrors the audience. He’s spoiled, has little follow-through, and mostly cares about whatever he’s interested in at the moment. That doesn’t stop him from astutely pinning down the C-suite ethos and flattening it. “Isn’t all of this kind of ridiculous,” he asks you with a sideways glance at the camera. “The deals, the meetings, the rigidity of all of it.”
One of my absolute favorite scenes so far is in the second episode when Roman, who had just been promoted unofficially into the COO position by his father, steps into his new office. When he opens his brand-new, ultra-corporate Dell, the only thing visible on the screen is Outlook. It immediately starts syncing and sending him email notifications.
Notification after notification. And then some more. The viewer is left to imagine how many notifications a COO might get after being announced a couple days ago.
I think this is just such a brilliant visual. I love it so much: The super corporate Microsoft wide-screen that tells us we’re dealing with a stodgy company that will absolutely not allow Macs but still wants to be seen as hip, the image of the executive as functioning exclusively through email, and the notifications that are so much a part of the way most of us our everyday lives in the office.
A lot of times, in shows, writers abstract away the technology because, let’s face it, there’s no way someone will sit and watch people doing Excel all day (although, honestly, if you haven’t checked out scumbag Martin Shkreli - who deserves his own Normcore- Excel streams, you haven’t lived), but this is one of the cases where it just makes sense and connects us to the show, whose characters are otherwise completely unreachable for most of us.
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