At the end of the first episode of HBO’s runaway hit Succession, the cacophony of noises from countless TV news channels coalesces into a menacing crescendo. They grow louder and more brazen as the camera zooms out of a rundown housing complex. This housing arrangement is a riverside flotsam and stands in stark contrast to the opulent lifestyles of the show’s main characters, the Roy family.
The Roys are the owners of one of the largest media empires in the world, controlling news and entertainment for a vast majority of Americans. Their lavish existence is characterized by sweeping mansions and platinum-encrusted robes, among other extravagant indulgences.
The episode serves as a definitive manifesto, a preamble to a contained revolution, priming us for retaliation that never quite “rummages to fruition”. In its perversely indulgent essaying of the wealthy and their discontent, the show comes closest to achieving true televised class consciousness.
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When it works well — and when it isn’t being repetitive (as Season 3 was described by the critics), or indulging in crude humour (‘What up, prick licks? It’s me, Doctor Moron!’) — it trains a keen eye on the seedy silos of the rich, with their webs of murders, rapes, and cover-ups: the dark underbelly of the affluent.
‘Eat the rich’ genre: Satirizing the wealthy
Succession, a beloved and critically acclaimed series whose fourth and final season is airing now, is just one example of a larger trend in entertainment that satirizes the wealthy. Feeding the fusillade are HBO’s The White Lotus, and numerous films, including The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, Knives Out and its sequel The Purge, The Hunger Games and Us — all part of what has been playfully dubbed the ‘eat the rich’ genre. Despite the anti-capitalist themes in these works, they have proven to be quite lucrative. However, they have also faced criticism for their lack of radicalism.
One common approach in this genre is to create caricatures of various types of wealthy individuals. They include those with old money, the nouveau riche, the IT-rich, the grifter, among others: a generous variety. The setting is an unfamiliar place with beautiful set pieces, but evil things happen amidst a platter of black comedy and gore. The audience is a priori expected to be acrimonious towards the rich.
An uncritical attachment to this credo gives us insipid maxims about the rich being wicked and baffling, with no fresh attempts at mining the significant social histories of the rich and how, for once, they are possibly able to live so brazenly in the free world. Succession, here, stands up on a table and puts a loud megaphone to the lips of Jesse Armstrong, the creator, and his team who truly, unequivocally, get it.
Accounts of the rich’s foibles
Most shows and films under the ‘eat the rich’ banner are premised on stasis. They begin with the wealthy already so, and brandish no significant challenges to their status, as opposed to their mortal body, which showrunners and filmmakers have been rudely murderous about. Take for instance The White Lotus, a miniseries that spends six hour-long episodes coasting in the pool, not broaching anything remotely critical until the final five minutes, when a random manslaughter takes place. Sure, the rich are entitled chumps — a stale aphorism.
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Triangle of Sadness pits the rich against the forces of nature; people die. The Menu gorges on tasteful scenery and rich people, who are butchered by a demented cook on a quirk. The ailment of qualified nothingness also plagues Knives Out and its sequel — conventionally enjoyable films with an enamel of cartooned real-world characters (Edward Norton plays a hybrid of Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, and Elon Musk, in the 2022 sequel) making it cold to touch, if warm to recognition and glee. The centrality of bodily offence, rather than assaults to their decapacitating wealth, suggests that the filmmakers’ objective is to appeal to the visceral aspect of class consciousness, and not the cerebral (to borrow Netflix lexicon).
‘Eat the rich’ as a doctrine has more tectonic origins than the prosaic use of the term today might suggest. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, French philosopher, evoked it as a reactionary imagery born of the desperation of the poor, and as an exacting twist on Marie Antoinette’s uncouth suggestion to famished peasants to ‘eat cake’ or ‘eat brioche’ — brioche being bread with extra steps. While The Menu, in good sport, takes cannibalism on face value, other films are more veiled in their accounts of the rich’s foibles.
And yet, they fall prey to the same folly, that of being self-serving vehicles of modern mythmaking. The predilection for violence is a cathartic cinematic device that is hardly revolutionary. It refocuses the viewer’s ire from the rich as a class, who occupy a big, wet chunk of all human resources, to the rich as people, and by torching the latter, they claim to have punished the former. Short-changing the viewer’s qualms for pointless brawls, they are only too smug, being bandied about as ‘critiques’ of the rich, ideologues of anti-capitalism, or as dioramas of Karl Marx’s manifesto.
Social immunity to political patronage
Succession is scripted by Jesse Armstrong and team. It is Shakespeare with razzmatazz; it is Gatsby on roller-skates; it is killing Julius Caesar with a selfie-stick. The scions of an old man are clamouring to be crowned emperor. The father, ancient and debilitated, has other plans. His wealth is built on controlling a culturally conservative entertainment empire, loosely based on that of billionaire Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox News, and hundreds of international newspapers. This is where we are when entering the first episode of the series. This is also where we are when leaving the first season, or indeed the second one. It is, facially, in stasis.
What differentiates Succession from its cousins is that it colours its world with shades borrowed from the real one, and in doing so it touches upon what the others miss: the political nature of wealth, and the symbiotic nature of the media-politics industrial complex.
Where Logan Roy, the show’s patriarch, controls the right-wing media channel and holds court with the US President and future candidates, Rupert Murdoch is believed to have manipulated national and international viewers about the justifications of questionable US activities such as war: namely, the invasion of Iraq. Where so many democracies — Chile, India, and Hungary included — are undergoing an upheaval about media ownership and control, and how it affects political decisions and voter consciousness, Succession charts the radical connection of the rich’s social immunity to political patronage.
The corporate misdeeds
In the first three seasons, a central narrative arc is that of corporate misdeeds. The Roys’ company operates a cruise line — luxury holidays out at sea! — and a senior employee, nicknamed Molester, is a sleazebag. He sexually assaults vulnerable female entertainers on the false pretext of more stable employment; non-disclosure events are signed. Some dancers are thrown overboard. This is criminal coverup at the highest level of corporate chicanery, and yet when this is brought to question before a Senate hearing, the Roys respond by arguing polemic about their political image, and brushing off any responsibility for what are reprehensible activities with legislated sentences.
A new witness emerges; she had signed a non-disclosure before but has a new steely resolve at the peak of the #MeToo movement. She is about to bring the entire company down —corporate reputation is a crucial compass of whether people — your average, riverside-complex-dwelling simpletons — do business with you. She is intercepted by the only female Roy child, in a cruel reversal of supposed gendered loyalties.
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Siobhan Roy, ambitious daughter, issues missives of solidarity with the witness’ cause. She is sympathetic. And yet, she says while wrapping the hapless woman in unvarnished sophistry, this would be a career-ending move for a woman of her lowly status, attacked by internet trolls, and chequered with the standing of a characterless woman whose glowing media coverage will wane with the fall of the #MeToo wave. This is gaslighting 101, cleverly hiding the fact that the trolls would be launched at the Roys’ own initiative, that the character assault would find its missiles in the Roys’ attic.
A version of truth
And yet, in Season 3, we see the aftermath of a reversal of fates. When the forward son Kendall Roy attacks his father’s company by bringing the cruise-lines case against him, Logan Roy enlists the favours of the President to forestall inquiries. The President doesn’t concede, as he sees nothing of value in the Roys’ media coverage of his presidency. When political patronage goes sour, it eradicates its allies and replaces them with perfect substitutes. This embellishes a refreshing observation of how the fate of a people is scripted in feisty boardroom battles, in quick editorial decisions, in the inflated egos of the rich with no consequence.
Yet, until then, the rich are fundamentally unassailable. This drives home the shortcomings of the ‘eat the rich’ genre — they have to restrict themselves to carnage, as any ideological criticism is basically irrelevant and inadequate. The rich will always curry favour with political actors, and wealth distribution. Gil Scott-Heron’s song, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised comes to mind, especially because Kendall squeals that “-it will be televised!” after all, as his campaign philosophy.
Political warfare has never occurred along strict lines of logic. We do not need to belabour this point. Landslide political victories have been clinched on laughable and worrying war cries. Logan Roy says, “People come to us because we don’t sell them on anything. No packet of fucking bleeding heart, United Nations-Volvo-gender-bender horseshit.” What he means is that the Roys’ media journalism is realistic, and that they don’t follow the supposedly left-wing channels (the CNN, for instance), who are accused of virtue-signalling. The Roys show the truth.
He lies. In a frenzied media landscape and with a human race that has never before been so overfed with information and opinions, a citizen will believe the most appetizing version of the truth. And this may be a version that, perhaps in a happy accident, might just sit right with the political party in power. The jury is still out on that one.