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

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.

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