Opinion | The Great Genius of ‘Succession’ Was Hovering Two Inches Above Reality

Like most of the great cable dramas, and to me, like so much of contemporary life, “Succession” was simultaneously tragic and comic, entertaining and horrifying. Over its four seasons, which had a grand 90-minute finale on Sunday night, it was the apotheosis of a line of dark, galvanizing, breathtakingly excellent cable dramas about a criminal-adjacent milieu, shows that also have important, big things to say about our greed-addled American reality — “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad.” But “Succession” did something that none of its predecessors did.

On the surface, the show blurred fiction and reality in a way that was juicy and fun. But its X factor, the reason it resonated so profoundly, was that the blurring of fiction and reality in the world the characters inhabit was a devastating commentary on the blurring of fiction and reality in the world we viewers inhabit. No other show has so skillfully used its real-time proximity to certain people and events — and did so just as life suddenly came to seem so uncertain and unreal. For 41 riveting hours over five very strange, disorienting years, “Succession” led an audience, around eight million of us this final season, into its uniquely uncanny valley.

Its unlikable main characters — a superrich puppet master and his cynical, entitled children who together run a huge media corporation — are brilliant exemplars of a caste everyone nowadays really loves to hate. A critical mass of Americans has come to understand that big business and the rich hijacked and corrupted our political economy over the past several decades. The show resonated, too, because during the same period, the commingling of American TV news (and thus politics) and show business has accelerated and played a crucial role in the national unraveling.

It was in the 1980s and ’90s, too — as a new consensus arose in Washington that the New Deal was obsolete and in New York that broadcast news was all about ratings — that the word “zeitgeist” became a cliché, because writers like me started overusing it. “Succession” has perfectly captured the current zeitgeist, with all its confusions and contradictions. This anxious moment of extreme popular anger at elites and rigged systems and 1920s-level inequality is also, of course, part of the long-running second Gilded Age. At least 53 million ordinary folks watched Vogue’s video of the rich and famous arriving at the Met Gala on May Day. “Succession’s” huge HBO budgets afforded it the verisimilitude of endless private planes and extravagant locations filled with hundreds of extras.

Fiction based on well-known living people and real events, the roman à clef, has been popular since the 1600s and especially during the past hundred years, from “Tender Is the Night” to “The Devil Wears Prada” and, in between, the movie “Citizen Kane” — based on an heir who built a powerful conglomerate of newspapers, magazines and studios, William Randolph Hearst. “Succession” is now the “Kane” of its genre and medium, our great série à clef. The obvious models for Logan Roy, his Waystar Royco conglomerate and its American Television Network were our present-day Hearst redux, Rupert Murdoch, his News Corp and Fox Corporation and Fox News.

The past decade has been defined by how life, the real thing, so often resembles fiction — the first Black president succeeded by a reality TV star and serial conjurer of failed businesses, the pandemic, the astounding and scary new artificial intelligence marvels monthly. “You can’t make it up,” people say. But for those of us who turn to humor to help process the nonstop parade of weirdness, a new cultural trope was addictive: imagining that it is, indeed, all made up, that any improbable piece of news is a plot twist in a TV series or movie or digital simulation.

The writers’ room ran out of ideas (Donald Trump choppering from his Covid hospitalization back to the White House for a Mussolini balcony moment). This new show is so meta (the Ukrainian comedian who played an Everyman who became president and actually became president) and so implausible (who stopped a superpower tyrant’s blitzkrieg). That season finale really jumped the shark (Jan. 6). And then last year’s hearings of the Jan. 6 committee — astonishingly effective because a former ABC News president shrewdly produced them, unlike any before, as a 10-episode multimedia TV series.

In America at large, however, the blurring of reality and fantasy isn’t merely fascinating. Americans’ knack and weakness for these mixtures amount to a founding national predisposition — what made America the global center of show business, from P.T. Barnum to Hollywood to televangelism to reality TV. Our wise forebears also built walls between important reality over here and entertainment and make-believe over there and installed useful establishment gatekeepers to decide what belonged where.

During the past half-century, those barriers crumbled gradually, then suddenly. America’s iffy grip on reality turned from a chronic condition to acute and pathological, metastasizing beyond entertainment and spreading throughout the real world, most disastrously into our information and political systems, a phenomenon for which no single individual and enterprise has been more responsible than the real-life inspirations for Logan Roy and ATN. Early this season, Logan told his children, “I love you, but you are not serious people.” He could have been talking to America, where people now feel entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions.

The writers and producers of “Succession” adhered to rigorous verisimilitude in depicting the corporate scheming, the lust for power for its own sake, the look and feel of life inside the bubble of the very rich, an unhappy family unhappy in its own way, even the self-consciously jargony talk and strenuous insults. Its understanding of the politics of haute capitalists was also spot on. Most are not right-wing true believers like the billionaires Charles Koch and Peter Thiel but more like Logan or Rupert Murdoch: Sure, they’re on the right, mainly for personal greed-is-good financial reasons. But to Mr. Murdoch and Logan, creating streams of alarming and misleading newslike propaganda about issues they care little about was a counterprogramming business opportunity.

At a reception, when the far-right-wing presidential nominee, Jeryd Mencken, says to Shiv Roy that he and her father were in “ideological sympathy,” she smiles and says, nah, “He was about money, winning and gossip.” In an early episode, Logan’s grandnephew Greg says that he had qualms about going to work for ATN because “it’s, like, kind of against my principles?” Logan’s executive flunky son-in-law, Tom, doesn’t buy it for a second. “Your principles?” he says. “You don’t have principles.” None of the main characters do.

Writing realist fiction about real individuals and events carries two opposing risks: going over the top, which “Succession” never did, and being too on the nose. The goal is to get exquisitely close to but never quite touch the hard reality, the way maglev technology lets high-speed trains miraculously float an inch or two above the tracks.

The show’s creator and showrunner, Jesse Armstrong, made several large choices that radically diverge from reality. Our pandemic did not happen in the characters’ world. They almost never mention real public figures or companies. Dates aren’t mentioned at all. A show about contemporary news media and politics avoided dealing directly with race and racism or wokeness or other cultural warfare. The major-party presidential nominees are played by actors who are 54 and 42 — highly unrealistic these days but fine by me. And strangest of all, the words “Republican” and “Democrat" were almost never uttered, the better, perhaps, to indict the cynicism and corruption of the whole system.

The Roy family does and doesn’t resemble its inspiration. Yes, Logan was an old, tough, legendary, Anglophone immigrant who built a media empire, including a TV channel supplying right-wing commentary and news 24/7. But he is very much his own free-standing creation. Murdoch didn’t decide to sell his entertainment holdings to a Netflixy start-up owned by a Loki-like Swede, for instance, and most important, he didn’t build his business from scratch; he inherited it from his knighted father in the 1950s.

He has, however, like Logan, had several wives; also like Logan, one of those marriages produced two sons and a daughter who have competed to succeed their father. Like Kendall Roy, James Murdoch went to a fancy New York prep school and Harvard (and worked on The Lampoon) and is a rap aficionado. But unlike Kendall, James Murdoch can be funny, and as Maureen Dowd wrote in 2020, people who know both Murdoch sons refer to “James as ‘the smart brother’” and “the more interesting one,” suggesting Roman resembles him at least a bit. In her anti-ATN liberalism, Shiv is the most like James Murdoch but obviously also like Elisabeth Murdoch, who was married to a media-world schemer, was shoved aside early in the succession race and, according to Times reporting in 2019 (which she denied), had urged “her father to fire James and replace him with her.”

The show’s dance between fiction and reality continued throughout the seven years of its creation and presentation. The cast sat down together for the first time to read the script for the first episode the same day our reality would spectacularly, disorientingly outrun fiction: Nov. 8, 2016. When Murdoch divorced his fourth wife, Jerry Hall, the settlement reportedly prohibited her from providing story ideas to the show’s writers — a fact that itself could have provided a story idea for the show’s writers. After Season 2 ends with Kendall righteously turning against his father and then with the series on a pandemic-enforced hiatus, real life went totally “Succession”; in eight months, James Murdoch resigned, Mr. Trump attempted his illegal overturning of the election, and the big voting machine companies brought lawsuits accusing Fox News of knowingly, repeatedly lying about them.

James Murdoch told Ms. Dowd he quit the family company because of Fox News’s blurring of fiction and reality. “You can venerate a contest of ideas,” he said. “But it shouldn’t be in a way that hides agendas. A contest of ideas shouldn’t be used to legitimize disinformation.” He added, “I think at great news organizations, the mission really should be to introduce fact to disperse doubt — not to sow doubt, to obscure fact.”

In 39 episodes of “Succession,” no Roy family member or any other character I can recall ever said anything remotely similar about the nature of truth and journalism and the marketplace of ideas — let alone with such apparent sincerity. “Your principles? You don’t have principles.”

The writers, with their masterly fiction-reality maglev trick, only once let the speeding “Succession” train come too close and screechingly scrape the track of important hard fact: in the election night episode two weeks ago, set almost entirely at ATN headquarters. From the start of the series, the producers made the counterintuitive (and, to my mind, correct) creative choice never to show the ATN sausage being made or served. A realistic dramatic series about making TV is almost impossible to do well and, when it depicts characters covering and commenting on recent actual events (HBO’s “The Newsroom”), easy to do terribly.

The “Succession” election night mixes our past two actual ones — 2016, when a fascism-friendly Republican candidate won a surprise victory, and 2020, when Fox News went out on a limb before midnight to say accurately he’d lost Arizona, kicking off days of close-swing-state uncertainty before he was finally declared the loser.

On “Succession,” the Roy children are in and around the newsroom on election night, managing details of coverage in real time. (As far as we know, no Murdoch ever did anything like that.) They go way out on a limb to declare the fictional fascism-friendly Republican candidate the winner in still-undecided Wisconsin and therefore the president-elect, and they do it in exchange for his agreement to assist in a business scheme, resulting in an unequivocally corrupt, undemocratic election — coincidentally, what the real-life fascism-friendly ex-president claims happened to him in real-life 2020.

For people horrified by Mr. Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, then nerve racked by the long wait for a final result in 2020 and now uneasily imagining a Trump re-election in 2024, the fictional worst-case hybrid of “Succession” was retraumatizing and dread inducing. I found it problematic for a different reason.

We’ve now seen proof that Fox knew the stolen-election conspiracy theories it pushed after election night 2020 were false and that it pushed them to pander to what its audience wanted to hear. At our precarious moment in the real life and potential death of the Republic, for “Succession” to tease its audience’s suspicions and fears with such a hyperrealistic alternate-facts version of a recent election bordered on the irresponsible.

But that was it for politics on “Succession.” Immediately afterward, Logan Roy was buried, with dueling eulogies that eloquently summarized his most winning and monstrous qualities. It was, to quote Fox News’s former slogan, a fair and balanced funeral. And by the show’s finale, the only voting that mattered was that of the board of directors deciding whether to sell the family business out from under the scheming, incompetent heirs.

ATN’s corrupt presidential election night call may not have worked after all, with the Wisconsin votes still up in the air and the Roys’ bad guy no longer seems a lock for the Oval Office. But that’s barely, passingly mentioned. Democracy? The nation’s future? Incidental to the real business at hand.

For a while, the last episode let us believe that the Roy kids had grown a little, were capable of something like ordinary sibling fun, playing in the ocean, goofing around late at night in their mother’s kitchen. In the hard light of the business day, however, they were only out for themselves. Roman ran away, Shiv pulled maneuvers worthy of her name and Kendall showed that the truest, hardest fact of your life can be transmuted into fiction if the princeling wishes it. In “Succession” there were no redemptive character arcs. It was beautifully ugly from beginning to end.

As it finished, the show managed to separate itself from the real-life particulars that had inspired and energized it. Its fictional world was all its own. But it spoke to ours powerfully. In time the chatter about the Roy children (and Tom!) will die down, along with the debates about the allure or loathsomeness of their tastefully lavish lives. What should linger are its truths about the corrupting effects of untethered power, the unfathomable cynicism of people in high places, the failure of billions to buy happiness, and most of all, today’s mesmerizing, confusing, terrifying interplay of fact and fantasy.

Kurt Andersen is the author of “You Can’t Spell America Without Me,” “Fantasyland” and, most recently, “Evil Geniuses.”

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