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Column: Why ‘Succession’ keeps us glued to our screens watching irredeemable people

Jeremy Strong, from left, Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin play the scheming children of a media magnate in "Succession."
Jeremy Strong, from left, Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin play the scheming children of a media magnate in “Succession.”
(Macall B. Polay/HBO)

There was a moment during the most recent episode of the award-winning HBO dramedy “Succession,” the seventh of its third season, when it felt like human decency had a chance.

Roman Roy, the son of a media mogul whose children are vying for his empire, is discussing a potential business deal. Then his father’s health comes up. And by health, I mean the question “when will your father die?” becomes part of merger discussions. Roman pauses briefly and repeats the question. Then he gives that unnerving smirk that Kieran Culkin, the actor who plays him, employs when his shoulder angel and shoulder devil begin to dance.

Now keep in mind that Roman’s father, Logan, while not the picture of perfect health, is not currently in hospice or even the hospital. The tech founder that Roman is negotiating with just doesn’t want the old man around.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

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I’ve been a fan of the satirical hit show since it premiered in 2018. I’m familiar with its dark humor. And while that human decency thing I alluded to earlier tends to be more of an occasional extra than recurring character, I thought surely this vile man essentially rooting for Logan to die was about to get a piece of Roman’s damaged mind. After all, Roman’s the one child who appears to genuinely love his family, having refused to sign a harsh statement against his older brother and often sticking up for his embattled dad.

But nope. After that slight pause and smirk, Roman presses ahead to seal the deal.

“Succession” doesn’t do feel-good moments. It doesn’t defend anyone’s honor, or pretend to be interested in inspiring belief in anything beyond transactions. The best it offers is a towel to wipe the urine off your face (because this is “Succession,” Roman closing the deal culminates in a urinal gag), and the towel was dirty to begin with.

If “Ted Lasso” is the show credited with speaking to our higher selves, showing the virtuous triumphs of an American soccer coach in the U.K., “Succession” is the one that grounds us in the reality that entertainment is supposed to relieve us from. And while some of the show’s scenarios are so over the top they may be hard to believe, its repulsive negativity is no more fantastical than “Ted Lasso’s” syrupy positivity.

Anything effective enough to have fans — ‘Ted Lasso,’ ‘Doctor Who,’ Bob Dylan’s music — will have disgruntled fans. But what do the artists owe them?

The thing about “Succession” that separates it from all of the other shows where evil and selfishness are the stars is that it makes little to no attempt to be anything other than that. I don’t feel good after watching, not even a little. Which raises the question: Why do so many people love it?

Shows like “This Is Us” hurt because they are heartbreaking. “Succession” inflicts pain because it has no heart. No soul. There’s not one single character with a moral compass to root for.

I don’t know if “Succession” would be a hit pre-Trump. But certainly after a presidential candidate’s boasting of grabbing women’s genitals stops being disqualifying, what can a show say to cross our societal line?

We have largely stopped being shocked by the things public figures do. Even less shocking is that we find bleak, tasteless behavior entertaining.

Today we have videos of customers losing their minds at the store because workers asked them to wear a mask during a pandemic. We have a supposedly “pro-life” member of Congress mocking Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for taking paternity leave. Fans in Indianapolis last week reportedly told LeBron James they wished one of his children died in a car accident.

“Succession” earned an astounding six acting nominations. Five of those cast members reveal the inner workings of key episodes.

We’re not well. Certainly not well enough to dismiss “Succession” as total fiction. And maybe that’s the appeal — the sense that we’re not watching make-believe as much as we are eavesdropping.

There is a part of me that can easily believe some mega-rich spoiled brat is negotiating a business deal with his father’s death in mind, because we live in a world where President Trump called Sen. Ted Cruz’s wife ugly and Cruz still kissed the ring to stay close to power. In the world we live in, the one “Succession” presents to us, you just grin at your father’s looming demise — and try to grab power for yourself.

@LZGranderson


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