Why ‘Succession’ Imitators Keep Missing The Mark
Inevitably, when a TV show conquers the summits of critical and popular acclaim, what follows are a hoard of copycats – and so in the wake of Succession’s success we have seen Knives Out, The White Lotus and now, The Fall of the House of Usher. Unfortunately, all these hopeful variants lack the one key thing that was baked into the bones of Succession: an unconditional hatred of wealth.
Airing from 2018 to 2023, the ambitiously misguided copycats of the HBO show are already popping up. The Emmy-award winning series created by Jesse Armstrong drew inspiration from the Murdoch family to tell the detestably tragic tale of four adult children scheming to become the successor to their tyrannical father’s influential media empire. Over four seasons, Succession consistently told a story of perversion. Not just the perversion of the Roy family’s familial love and care by ambition and greed, but how late capitalism enables and necessitates such perversion. Succession was never a story of bad apples, but of a rotten orchard incapable of baring anything but poisoned fruit.
Succession has been rightfully lauded for this characterisation of wealth and power. Audiences and critics alike point to the marvel of crafting a story full of such monstrous, yet inescapably human people. A large factor in the show’s acclaim was its use of such sympathetic yet cynical characters to wholeheartedly condemn the systems they exploited. Succession refreshed the staple “eat the rich” genre. The show marked a shift in “eat the rich” stories; from centring the plight of oppressed classes to lionising the cruelty and opulence of those who enjoyed wealth at the expense of others. A top-down critique rather than a bottom-up.
Films and series like Maid, Shoplifters, Hustlers, Parasite and Sorry To Bother You – which follow the lengths taken by lower and working classes to get by – gave way to stories about the depraved inhumanity of the upper classes. Succession didn’t start that trend. However, it’s clear from Knives Out, The White Lotus, The Fall Of The House Of Usher, and others that the main lesson studios took from Succession was that people want to see the tortured rich. And that what people want from stories critiquing class is a kind of masochistic fantasy that all rich people are bad and because they are bad they are unhappy.
In Mike Flannigan’s latest Netflix horror series, The Fall of the House of Usher, a wealthy pharmaceutical family is picked off by a demon collecting on the debt accrued by their bloodline. Each episode sees the adult children and heirs of protagonist Roderick Usher die torturous deaths, ending their luxurious but lachrymose existence. Flannigan assures us in monologue after monologue that none of these people are indeed good or happy, and their self-flagellating ambition to appease their distant father has made monsters of all of them. Between the luxury, the daddy issues, and the all-too-familiar orchestral strings that score the family’s demise – one could say it is not a demon but Succession, or at least, its broadest strokes, that haunts The Fall Of The House Of Usher.
Unlike Succession, however, The Fall of the House of Usher is unwilling to hold the system account for creating the Ushers and the harm their botched pharmaceuticals have wrought. Instead, the audience is assured that it is demonic intervention, not a broken system that favours that rich, that has allowed the Ushers corruption and destruction to go unpunished until now. And when the Usher bloodline is ended with the death of Roderick’s granddaughter, a monologue from the demon emphasises that good will be done in her name with the wealth the Ushers leave behind to their spouses. For all its Succession-esque posturing, House of Usher can’t bring itself to truly condemn such eroding wealth, despite the horror it’s bestowed on both the family Usher and the hundreds and thousands of victims of their greed. No, instead, the series monologues its way into a bad apple ethos that perpetuates the notion only people are bad, rather than systems.
Similarly, Morning Wars’ third season has attempted to take some anti-billionaire cues from Succession without any of its bite. The acclaimed first season explored the impact of a whistle blower exposing rape culture at a popular news media network called UBA. But in its third season, Morning Wars has pivoted from the social intricacies of single incidents to the cultural battle between big tech and legacy media. In a plot borrowed from Succession’s own third season, Morning Wars introduces a big tech billionaire who wants to buy the failing UBA network and “save” it for seemingly dishonest means. Much of the season has showcased the wealth and influence big tech billionaire Paul Marks wields as glamorous and well-intentioned – all rocket flights to the moon and charity. But his company’s shortcomings (stealing intellectual property, labour rights violations, blackmail) are eventually uncovered.
Despite Morning Wars’ origins as a show decrying corporatised misogyny, Marks and his company’s malpractice are framed as totally unique to him. The sale of UBA to Marks’ company is averted by a last minute bid for a merger of equals with a rival network. And so, Morning War‘s third season ends with a hopeful sequence of normalcy restored. Unlike in Succession, where there were no ethical corporations under capitalism, Morning Wars insists that merging with another mega-corporation will “be a fresh start”. Like The Fall Of The House Of Usher, Morning Wars cannot (or will not) recognise labour rights violations, or abuse of power, as a tenet of capitalism. Morning Wars borrows the war between big tech and legacy media from Succession. But it steers away from the battle Succession was unafraid to show as one already lost at a grand scale, thanks to unchecked greed. Instead, both The Fall Of The House Of Usher and Morning Wars prefer the myth of a few bad apples, the comforting fantasy that individuals abuse the system and it is not the system itself that is abusive.
Another series seemingly trying to tap into Succession’s zeitgeist is HBO’s The White Lotus. Created by Mike White, each season of the series follows a new group of rich and repugnant individuals whose vile natures only become more apparent as their stay at the titular resort unfolds. Much of the series’ appeal lies in schadenfreude, the perverse pleasure one gains from watching others suffer or behave indecently. The White Lotus certainly offers an unsympathetic portrait of the ultra-wealthy that is contrasted against picturesque destinations and aesthetics in a cathartic way. Many have praised The White Lotus for not making its characters conflictingly sympathetic in the vein of Succession, even arguing that in doing so it is more implicitly anti-capitalist. But great anti-capitalist stories are not just critiques of individuals’ behaviour. They are critiques of capitalism as a system and a way of thinking. Anti-capitalism is more than just the idea that rich people are bad, it’s that they exist in a system that encourages them to be and a society that glorifies it, and it’s all fundamentally wrong.
Succession is far from the be all and end all of anti-capitalist storytelling. However, unlike the many shows now trying to emulate it, it did not frame the power and wealth of millionaires as aspirational in any way. At every turn, the wealth enjoyed by the Roys is either framed as an incongruous perk of their exploitive greed, or as a fact of their environment that re-enforces their distance from humanity. Unlike The White Lotus, the picturesque settings of Succession are shot with dismissive acknowledgement, like an office in a workplace sitcom might be. Unlike Morning Wars, the Roys are not performatively adventurous or glamorous or even charitable as they scheme, and there is no illusionary benefit to their influence. And unlike House of Usher, Succession connects the maintenance of such wealth to the intentional abuse of systems and of people, not of deals with devils. Through characters like Greg and Tom, Succession actively and consistently frames someone aspiring to the Roy’s level of power and wealth as inherently traitorous, and parasitic – a forfeit of one’s humanity.
Even Succession’s masterstroke of coaxing audiences into sympathising with such people operated as a reminder that the most inhumane elements of capitalism are wielded by people. By human beings with families and trauma and desires that are relatable to most people. This contradiction that many claim is Succession’s greatest weakness in its critique of capitalism is its greatest strength. That cognitive dissonance of the audiences was the discomfort that, in relating to the Roys and understanding their choices, we saw both the human and systemic forces that shape them. And we saw how those forces are ultimately inseparable.
With these post-Succession shows and films, what sticks out is the aspect of Succession that made people the most uncomfortable. The element of Succession that its imitators refuse to acknowledge: that no one individual’s intentions matter in a system geared for profit over humanity. Morning Wars, The Fall of the House of Usher, The White Lotus, Knives Out, and other post-Succession “eat the rich” stories mistake the tree for the forest. They mistake, or perhaps prefer, the illusion that capitalism has some benefit, that the rich are horrible merely because they themselves are, and all it would take is the right person doing the right thing for the system to work. They go through the motions of Succussion, but miss the point of the series – that there are no heroes, or singular villains, and no secret demons behind the curtain. There is just the reality that no one, regardless of who they are, is an exception to the exploitative rule of capitalism.
Merryana Salem (they/them) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out their podcast, GayV Club where they yarn about LGBTIQ media. Either way, they hope you ate something nice today.