The Media's Masochistic Love Affair With HBO's 'Succession'
For those working in digital media, the HBO series holds a mirror up to our world, and that can be a terrible thing for some.
Oct 16 2019, 5:27pm
Screengrab via HBO
Throughout Succession's recent season, every Sunday night, media Twitter lit up the timeline with wry jokes, memes, and references to the latest episode, particularly those most relatably scathing to our chosen industry: the ever-shifting hellscape known as digital media. While the show isn't a ratings juggernaut in the vein of Game of Thrones, its finale, which aired this week, pulled in 1.1 million viewers.
But looking at Twitter, it felt like 900,000 of those viewers were New York-based media professionals. Granted, if you reside within the echo chamber of the industry, that effect will happen. This all begs the question: Who's watching Succession besides navel-gazing media professionals?
Created by British screenwriter Jesse Armstrong, Succession revolves around the extremely dysfunctional Roy family, billionaires who own a global media empire. The family patriarch, Logan Roy, faces health concerns that sparks an arms race amongst his mostly terrible offspring to succeed to the throne (hence, the name of the show). What ensues is a lot of shady corporate dealings, familial nepotism, cutthroat sibling rivalry, and big money power moves that leave behind many casualties.
I personally only watch the show if it happens to be on in the background. But I do know, by virtue of being online and working in media, that much of what happens within Waystar Royco, the Roys' conglomerate, mirrors our tense, ulcer-inducing industry. It helps that Armstrong has finance and business journalists—as well as the writer of Enron, a play portraying the scandal surrounding the multi-billion dollar energy plant's collapse—on the payroll, offering consultation on the mergers and shifty corporate dealings seen in the show.
The Roys are widely thought to be based on the Murdoch family, especially because Armstrong wrote a never-shot film titled Murdoch about the eponymous media family led by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. However, Armstrong has denied that the Murdochs are the only inspiration for the Roys, naming William Randolph Hearst, the HBO true crime docuseries The Jinx, and Queen Elizabeth (among others) as figures he also looked to when crafting his characters. Even so, it's hard for digital media workers not to see themselves and their employers in the show as well. When Vox Media acquired New York Media (and with it, New York magazine, Vulture, The Cut, Intelligencer, Grub Street, and The Strategist), a slew of Succession-related memes flooded the timeline. (The same occurred when James Murdoch reportedly purchased a small stake in VICE.) Overall, the series has an "it me" quality for media workers.
"People are naturally interested in things that reflect what they're interested in," Ashley Feinberg, a senior writer at Slate and fan of Succession, told me over the phone. "For media, that's media shit."
In season 2's "Vaulter," an episode written by Jon Brown that became notorious within media circles, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) guts the Roy family digital media company Vaulter, giving its employees 15 minutes to gather their belongings and get the hell out. All that's left is an editor, five interns, and a whole lot of new freelancers in the market. Kendall performed this ritualistic newsroom massacre because "my dad told me to." Considering that 7,200 media professionals (and counting!) have lost their jobs this year alone, this episode hit a nerve.
And the outlandishly headlined stories of Vaulter felt familiar, too. While the office layout, the big neon logo in the lobby, and the irreverent headlines in the episode ("Wait, Is Every Taylor Swift Lyric Secretly Marxist?” or "Meet the World’s Richest People Trafficker (He’s a Surprisingly Nice Guy)") felt awfully VICE-ish, I wasn't the only media professional who found it hard not to feel personally attacked. (My colleague Drew Schwartz wrote a story titled "Vaulter from Succession Is Probably VICE, Right?" earlier this season.) Buzzfeed and the website formerly known as Gawker also felt the heat, because, really, this has somehow become all of us. We see Succession in our newsrooms, our politics (as seen during Tuesday's Democratic debate), and any space where thirst for money and power makes people do and say questionable things.
After reading the online discourse about the Vaulter episode, I decided to stop watching the series. Its plotlines trigger my already rampant anxieties stemming from working in an uncertain and often unforgiving industry. Sara David, my colleague and the astrology editor at VICE, felt the same way.
"I'd considered watching Succession because there was so much buzz around it, but when I read the show's synopsis, I just felt it hit a little close to home for me to be able to enjoy," she told me. "Even if it's done in a concisely satirical or aesthetically pioneering way, I just don't have an interest in watching likely corrupt and clueless millionaires fumble around the media industry. Everyone working in media lives that reality already!"
But for others, that tension is part of the appeal. Along with the show's excellent writing and often frenetic cinematography, the series offers a snapshot into our lives in digital media, for better and for worse. The constant zooms and shaky camera movements of the series evoke how the stress of working in media feels.
"I have only just gotten past the Vaulter shutdown, which, yes, felt all too familiar," said Claire Lampen, a writer who worked at Mic before being laid off in 2017. She watches the series in small doses because "binging it all at once would leave me feeling bleak."
"The Vaulter trajectory is anxiety-making, because you or one of your media friends has lived it, but maybe it's also sort of validating: The villains look exactly like you thought they would, and they're making industry-gutting decisions in the same hapless, arbitrary, and money-grubbing manner you always suspected they were," Lampen said.
Feinberg, a former employee at Gawker who watched and tweeted throughout the season, noted that the Vaulter arc played perfectly into "the Gawker anxiety that has remained." "I think for a lot of old Gawker people, we take particular pleasure in reliving the worst years of our lives," she said.
Much of that, she explained, is because media folks are "self-involved." "Honestly, I think more than anything it plays into media people's tendency to want everything to be about them and this actually was, at least for a little bit, so it was great," she said.
Alex Alvarez, a freelance writer who worked at Super Deluxe up until the day before the delightfully bizarre media company shut down, agreed. For her, the show and the Twitter discussions that come after an episode "drives home why people outside of media tend to find people in media self-centered and myopic." She says that's in part why she didn't watch.
"I've definitely been following what people have been talking about in terms of the show's parallels to places like BuzzFeed and VICE and Splinter and I guess, having been in that world, I'm not particularly interested in seeing that story shown as-is," she said over email.
Alvarez added, "I already have the ten thousand logo sweatshirts and I've eaten the free ancient quinoa kale chips because no one likes to stock hot Cheetos in office kitchens (why?), and I've seen everyone I care about laid off due to endless, pointless pivots. I don't need to see that again unless it's within the context of, like, [a] psychedelic horror [film]. That I'd like to see."
While those ripped-from-the-headlines movies and series that highlight fearless journos exposing evils (Spotlight), uncovering world-shaking truths (All the President's Men), or telling the story of genuinely fascinating humans (Hustlers) are entertaining, and make our work seem sexy and exciting at all times, for the most part Hollywood gets the work of media professionals wrong. While I'd love to imagine Nikole Hannah-Jones draped in an elegant raincoat gliding into the New York Times newsroom and dropping copy for the 1619 Project, or Ronan Farrow wearing a fake mustache and holding secret meetings in a parking garage in the San Fernando Valley to gather testimony against Harvey Weinstein, the reality of putting together stories tends to be far less dramatic. Rom-coms, and shows like Sex and the City, show newspaper and magazine writers buying Blahniks and living in well-appointed apartments despite being assigned just one 1,000-word personal essay a month—which would pay nowhere near enough to even cover the rent.
And it's not just inaccurate, but full-on bad journalism that we often see on screen. Women journalists are often portrayed performing extremely unethical acts in pursuit of a story, including having sex with their sources to gain information, as was the case with Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) in House of Cards, or Amy Adams's Camille in Sharp Objects. The reality is that on a day-to-day level, writers aren't banging sources or accidentally falling in love with Matthew McConaughey, but collectively hunching over our laptops, silently praying TapeACall didn't fail us and fighting carpal tunnel while hoping we survive another possible layoff.
And Succession doesn't rest on those tired, unrealistic tropes. It provides a more authentic look at the insular, messy, upsetting, and unglamorous world media professionals actually inhabit. While it can be too on-the-nose for some, the realistic and brutal characterization of Succession's media monsters is appealing for many working in media who find catharsis in keeping up with the chaos of the Roys.
"I can't think of another even, like, semi-accurate depiction of digital media but it's the closest thing to what it's actually like," said Feinberg. "I really think a very large part of media people's fascination with it is that we can—when I say 'they' I mean, like, me, too—we can pretend it's about us."
"I think Succession is the only show where the media ecosystem feels actually real," Vulture staff writer and prolific Succession twitterer Hunter Harris told me over the phone. "It's not like Slugline [the fake news outlet] in House of Cards where it's clearly a Politico stand-in. This actually feels like Vaulter could be a competitor that I'd read a piece on. The reason the headlines that Vaulter runs, that ATN [the show's Fox News equivalent] runs, are as funny as they are is because they're conceivable. I think that's why I've gotten into watching it as someone in the media. I'm always curious how they'll play with reality next."
The anti-heroic portrayal of the Roys also offers those of us working in media who have survived layoffs, endured restructures, and dealt with constant vilification, trolling, and the threat of doxxing some vindication. The Roys are not sympathetic characters. They're not meant to be liked, and really, they shouldn't be too likable, anyway.
"It is satisfying to have this television show confirm that, yes, these people are buffoons. It is satisfying, and also maybe cathartic, to laugh at them," said Lampen. "It is also frightening because it hits so close to home, and therefore, probably extra compelling to the group of people regularly affected by this nonsense."
With season 2 at a close, and the digital media landscape and its workers still fighting to survive and thrive, Succession becomes more than just a show; it becomes a reflection of how we see ourselves, the work we do, and the often chaotic world around us.
But if nothing else, it gives us the memes to get through another stressful day in digital media.
Alex Zaragoza is the senior culture writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.