2019 was the year most of us discovered “Succession,” one of the few shows that felt like a communal television experience, at least in certain circles. (Journalists on Twitter — who are predisposed to becoming sucked into a sprawling HBO drama about a conniving family’s media empire, loosely based on the Murdochs and other media dynasties — were largely obsessed with the show.)
While it was a modest hit when compared to that other HBO show this year about power-hungry families, the way “Succession” took off was still a rarity in our streaming age: Every episode was an event, a show we could all watch and tweet about at 9 p.m. on Sundays. “Succession” and the machinations of the Roys became an obsession, generating memes, out-of-context screenshots and parodies.
What made it even more fixating was how the show mirrored real life in uncanny ways, while still keeping its distance. It’s not quite a direct, apples-to-apples comparison to the real world in 2019. But the series exists just parallel to it. Once you start to look, it’s hard not to see “Succession” in everything, a warped cycle of art imitating life imitating art.
The National Enquirer shredded documents related to Trump? Wonder if the employee who did it saved a few, like Cousin Greg did with the paper trail of Waystar Royco executives covering up sexual harassment allegations in its cruises division.
James Murdoch bought a stake in Vice? Hope he doesn’t shut it down at the behest of his father, like how our “number one boy” Kendall was forced to gut Vaulter, the digital media startup he acquired for Waystar Royco. (The entire Vaulter saga eerily mirrored that of the fall of Mic and, more recently, the demolition of Deadspin. It’s safe to say anyone who works in digital media has worked at and/or will work at a Vaulter someday.)
But drawing parallels between the scandal-ridden Roys and the scandal-ridden family in the White House is where it starts to get murky. On “Succession,” Shiv, the lone daughter in the family business, is tasked with helping to clean up Waystar Royco’s image after the sexual harassment scandal comes to light. Her brand of outwardly performing feminism and progressive values — but only when it benefits herself and her father — looks a lot like what Ivanka Trump does.
But if Shiv is Ivanka, then is Tom Jared Kushner, just more talkative? Sure, you could try to extend the metaphor further, theorizing whether Donald Trump is a poor man’s Logan Roy, similarly hampered by his own ego but less of a chess master. Or maybe Logan is more like Trump than we think, more hapless than the strategist he’s made out to be.
That’s where the fun in seeing everything as “Succession” starts to become exhausting. Following the Trump saga is tiring enough.
Yet that’s exactly why “Succession” excels. It mirrors but isn’t directly trying to take on real life, providing just the right balance of trenchant social commentary and tragicomic escapism, unlike some other works of pop culture in 2019 that incorporated similar themes and plotlines. Apple TV+’s “The Morning Show” is a fictionalized, high-gloss drama series that’s loosely inspired by real people in the media industry. But it’s too obvious in the way it’s a purposeful response to real — and still evolving — events in real time.
Originally slated to be about the inner workings of a network TV morning show, the show’s producers and writers significantly retooled it in 2017 after the firings of accused serial sexual harassers Matt Lauer, billing the show as one of the first high-profile pop culture projects to directly reflect and respond to the Me Too movement.
As a result, the finished product feels fractured. While it admirably tries to grapple with messy questions about Me Too, it does so with zero subtlety, hitting you over the head with what every character is supposed to represent.
In theaters this week, “Bombshell,” a dramatized retelling of the allegations of sexual harassment against Fox News founder Roger Ailes and the network’s culture of secrecy, feels too immediate and too eerie because of how closely it recounts the saga, which unfolded so recently. Particularly distracting is the parade of cameos by actors playing real-life figures who are still very much in the news today, from Jeanine Pirro to Rudy Giuliani. It gives those scenes a circus or funhouse mirrors-like vibe, in an otherwise serious movie that examines the ways institutions allow sexual harassment to go unchecked.
By contrast, “Succession” works because the Roys’ scandals are not quite a direct or obvious replication or reproduction of reality, but they’re just close enough. It accurately and often painfully captured 2019 to a tee, while still allowing us to gaze from afar — a perverse form of escapism from the hellscape that was 2019.