The Succession Industrial Complex
On Succession coverage and the search for serious people
The monoculture’s, like any rebirth, is proving fitful and spasmodic. Dimes Square, according to NME’s widely-mocked listicle, is over, but its music is coming to the mainstream. Not so fast, pronounced Pitchfork, panning the scene’s musical poster-child as an unconvincingly-horny gimmick useful only to answer the hypothetical “what if James Murphy discovered LMFAO instead of Gil Scott Heron?” Who cares, chimes in everybody else, with varying levels of sincerity. Matty Healy—of Cum Town fame—is rumored to be dating Taylor Swift, who is shutting down entire American cities on the One Month’s Rent to Get In the Door Tour. Ahead of the flood coming to destroy the internet, we are witnessing a sprint onto the ark.
Everybody wants to be a popstar now, because pop is all that is left. Perhaps that’s been the case for quite some time—at least as long as poptimism has reigned supreme, since the most radical thing an artist could do became making an exorbitantly produced event album. What seems to have unmistakably changed is that the Internet is no longer a viable site for artistic success or cultural impact. It has, through the “Mass Cringing” of aspiring TikTok musicians, become a tool to be shamelessly used on the path to stardom, but it is no longer an end in and of itself. Where this leaves the state of cultural criticism, which has migrated overwhelmingly to the internet, or networked commentary, which is a product of the internet, remains to be seen. If the coverage of Succession’s final season is any indication, the prospects for vibrant cultural commentary appear grim indeed.
If the center of cultural production and analysis is shifting once more from a de-centralized internet into a hulking monoculture, then Succession is the phenomenon’s midwife. Succession is, first and foremost, an online show. It is written by people who evidently spend great amounts of time on the internet in general and Twitter in specific, serving up the sort of punchy, quotable stills that are catnip to people who spend too much time on the internet and Twitter. Your opinion on Succession is likely determined by how much time you spend on Twitter. Succession is HBO’s flagship program, and it may appear that everybody watches it (most acutely on Sunday nights and Monday mornings, where innocent souls live-tweet as if Groundhog Day-ing 2012). And yet, as the odious John Podhoretz pointed out in a fit of accidental, worst-person-you-know-just-made-a-great-point lucidity, its viewership is dwarfed by low-cultural slop like Yellowstone. A rule of thumb, if ever there were one: when you see Dasha Nekrasova in something, you know that thing was created with Twitter at the front of mind.
At the same time, Succession is an undeniably popular show. Conversations about its “cultural impact” are largely misplaced, both insofar as a great television show need not be broadly impactful and in considering that television, as a medium, appears to be nearing the end of its viability. The program is not a cult phenomenon or a pop cultural blip. It has earned the broad and loyal buy-in of tastemakers (to the extent that “tastemakers” are not captured in the “people who use too much Twitter framework) and of the people whose tastes are made.1 It is the most popular program airing on the trademark prestige television network whether or not it was made popular through Twitter—a platform which, after all, once turned a man into the president of the United States.
To observe how the internet landscape discusses Succession, then, feels like a sort of preview to how it might handle the coming monoculture writ large—a monoculture recognizable in its scale, but made distinct in its new formation. It may be the case, as it sometimes appears with Succession, that this new popular culture will pass through the internet’s specific and the media class’s broader gatekeepers, jostling for elusive stamps of approval before vaulting into bonafide sensations. More recently, however, the Succession Industrial Complex has hinted at a bleaker future: a servile media class in which cultural commentary is pressurized into listicles, recaps, precaps and power rankings. A world in which popular art becomes content, leaving for the critical class oxygen for nothing more than superstructural meta-content.
Succession, on its merits, is a well-crafted show. Its narrative arcs are meticulously plotted, its writing is more often than not sharp and funny, its performances are felt and resonant, if occasionally overdone. It accomplishes the seemingly difficult task of making an ostensibly left-leaning viewership identify with the sort of psychopathic, vulgar billionaire class that their political sensibilities depend upon loathing. These formal strengths exist in service of the show’s broader, stated goal of satirizing the class it depicts. Succession is a joke, you see – if it were not, it would have a harder time justifying its own existence.
Survey the media landscape and discussion that has feverishly emerged around Succession and one might get the sense that the joke has been lost. Succession is analyzed, previewed, predicted, recapped, ranked, and discussed ad nauseam, but always at face value. Each episode marks the beginning of a feeding frenzy—it’s easy to imagine reviewers like older fans at a baseball stadium, scorecard in hand—premised solely upon stoking the content machine. Our great palace drama is treated with the same breathless reverence as sports or politics on cable news and Twitter: with complete urgency, ever-higher stakes, and the pure conviction that the characters on the screen are both real-life acquaintances and abstractions upon which one might project themselves.
The Succession fever is not unprecedented—one recalls the mania with which a Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones was breathlessly treated—but it is worrying nonetheless. Succession, for all intents and purposes, is a show that the internet wrote into existence. Its success, among other things, stands as proof positive that something can be written into the moment. Despite that, its treatment now hints at a cultural landscape in which the only viable writing is of the moment. Pageviews, and the advertising dollars that follow, come to those who do the servile work: who compile, who race to filing deadlines as if Logan Roy’s death were that of an actual media magnate, who list, who rank, who discuss. Ours is an environment in which the perceived market demand that commenters find something to say seems to have left people with nothing to say at all. That is not to say that there are not brilliantly talented writers grappling with Succession, or phenomena of its ilk, in ways that are engaging, thoughtful, and worthwhile. But more than anything else, the online media class’s dance with the monoculture has been dispiriting: scrape up as much ephemera as a week’s episode can provide, then canonize in a year-end list when all’s said and done.
As the monoculture coalesces once more, it’s not clear that a class of elect cultural commentators and public intellectuals will come with it. What we have instead, it seems, is a mediasphere that has been rendered totally flattened, servile, and reactionary; tasked not with talking about the art that structures popular culture but with repeating and sifting through the content it leaves behind.
Recently, a clip of Ted Lasso made its way across Twitter for a round of ritual mockery.2 It was the first I’ve ever seen of the show, and it was immensely disheartening. In it, a locker room discusses the ethics of sharing nudes without consent. The clip feels like a PSA in its stilted dialogue, strawman viewpoints, and offensively obvious moral preaching. It deserved every ounce of the scorn heaped upon it. Popular art, and even popular entertainment, has to aspire to more than lazily re-affirming and titillating the worldviews of the audiences engaging with it. So, too, must the discussion around popular culture aspire for more: not merely an exhortation to consume more, identify more, and post more, but to sit with the things they have chosen to give their time and attention to. Without real analysis, entertainment is just stimulus.
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One could theorize for days about what exactly draws the media class to Succession. Might there, deep down, be a sort of association with the grotesquely elite class the show depicts? Does the media class feel a sort of Oedipal resonance with a show about a tyrannical but successful father leaving behind damaged and perpetually failing heirs? Some questions may be better left unasked.
It feels worth noting that the account which shared the clip in earnest and good faith appears to double as a Succession Stan account.