By Jennifer Saba, Reuters Breakingviews
SUCCESSION does not have a successor. The HBO series about a fictional mogul and his adult children scheming to replace him is so captivating because it draws on real-life dynasties like Rupert Murdoch’s family. But the personalities that make the show gripping are becoming a relic of the past. The sprawling media businesses created by ruthless, larger-than-life men are being dismantled. It’s hard to imagine today’s tech tycoons providing the same kind of compelling viewing.
Succession, which wraps up its third season on Sunday, revolves around the mythical company Waystar Royco. Logan Roy, played by Brian Cox, is a cutthroat titan in his twilight years who built the conglomerate that operates a powerful cable news network, newspapers, theme parks, and a cruise line. The first season unfolds with the family gathering to celebrate Roy’s birthday. He falls ill and is rushed to the hospital. He recovers, but the central question of who will take his place at Waystar threads the premise for the entire series.
The joy of Succession is its cast of loathsome backstabbers, who plot and conspire inside a world of luxurious Manhattan apartments, five-star hotels, private jets, and Tuscan villas, while skewering each other with withering dialogue. When Roy’s disapproving brother finds out about a journalism school named after Logan, he asks: “What’s next, the Jack the Ripper women’s health clinic?”
Roy’s offspring are equally despicable. Shiv (Sarah Snook) is preening and manipulative and always trying to win her father’s approval. Roman (Kieran Culkin) carelessly texts inappropriate pictures of himself to the company’s long-suffering interim chief executive. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is so self-absorbed he believes he can tempt shareholders into open warfare against his dad. “We are going to leapfrog Amazon,” he proclaims as he tries to convince his siblings to take his side. The hapless Connor (Alan Ruck) is making a quixotic run for the White House.
Some of the events and characters evoke the career of Sumner Redstone, the architect of Viacom, who died last year. But the parallels with the Murdochs are impossible to overlook. The family that controls Fox and News Corp. have fought for power for decades. In 2015, Mr. Murdoch welcomed back his son Lachlan to Fox and elevated him to co-chair, above his brother James, who was CEO. It set in motion a series of events including a sale of the company’s entertainment and international assets to Walt Disney for $71 billion. James cashed out, broke with the company, and has been taking thinly veiled potshots at the family, including its role in enabling the divisive Fox News network, ever since.
Like Roy, Mr. Murdoch is still clinging to power. He’s chair of both Fox and News Corp., but the companies he controls no longer dominate the media scene. With a combined market value of little more than $30 billion, they’re dwarfed by the likes of Netflix, the $270 billion streaming juggernaut. When Mr. Murdoch dies, his four adult children will be in charge in what could be a potentially messy and nasty struggle. But the companies are more likely to be takeover targets than predators.
Succession also demonstrates how Silicon Valley has replaced media companies in terms of financial potency and influence. In a desperate attempt to stay relevant, the Roy family courts Lukas Matsson, the founder of a streaming company, GoJo, played by Alexander Skarsgard. “Success doesn’t interest me anymore,” he declares. “It’s too easy.”
Yet while the introverted Matsson may have the upper hand in the digital age, it’s hard to envisage his character inspiring a series like Succession. The same is true in real life. Modern media leaders like Disney’s Bob Chapek and Comcast’s Brian Roberts are too buttoned down to animate sharp satire. Tech billionaires like Alphabet’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page appear to lack the lust for power that makes characters like Mr. Murdoch so controversial and fascinating. Perhaps in four decades’ time Mark Zuckerberg’s then-adult children will spark a new drama by fighting their aging father for control of Meta Platforms. Until then, Succession marks the end of the family line.
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.