No television mode is quite so attuned to economics as reality television, just as no television mode deals with characterisation in such frankly economic terms as reality television. Since its bloom in the early 2000s, the “reality” of reality television has moved away from the illusion of unmediated action and instead focused on what might be described as real-time characterisation – a minute and obsessive focus on whose stocks are up, and whose stocks are down, who is booming and who is about to go bust. In fact, boom and bust is more or less the standard model of reality television, which uses all kinds of devices – especially audience interaction – to ensure that character development is imbued with a real-time precarity that even the most suspenseful of quality television programs has never quite been able to match. No surprise, then, that reality television is where representations of wealth have been most prominent in American popular culture –especially the spectacle of new wealth, whether in the forms of nouveau riche exemplified by series like Keeping Up With The Kardashians and the Real Housewives franchise, or in the forms of upward social mobility based on working-class know-how that we see in series like Duck Dynasty and Pawn Stars. While these two branches of reality television might be aimed at very different demographics, they both share a prescience that character and wealth are inherently precarious and suspsenseful entities, and can only be properly explored through the real-time, moment-to-moment access that reality television affords.
Far from offering an unmediated access to “everyday reality,” then, reality television contrives high-pressure scenarios in which the convergence of character and economics on situations of unbearable precarity articulates the deeper reality of how finance shapes character in the United States today. No doubt, many reality television series subsist on a relaxed, incidental atmosphere – you can put it on in the background – but that sense of relaxation is always contoured by the sense of imminent crisis, and works partly to normalise crisis and precarity into a domestic reality in the spaces where it is watched. Even when they don’t feature explicitly competitive premises, then, reality television is inherently competitive in nature, outlining an affective and economic environment in which character itself is a competition, and in which the real-time vagaries and precarities of character need to be harnessed to have any chance of more substantial wealth or comfort. No series encapsulates all these tendencies quite like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which pairs the performative lineage of drag with a more biting and merciless affective economy than any other show on the air. Setting itself against the idea of drag as a countercultural outlier, RuPaul’s series suggests that drag is in fact where this continuous effort to wrest character out of chaos is most resonant, offering drag, in turn, as both a metaphor and a practical strategy for navigating an environment in which every affect has economic consequences.
In many ways, Succession, the latest HBO drama, is the first fictional television series that has really lived up to the visions of reality presented by reality television – and the unbearable boom and bust mentality of RuPaul’s Drag Race in particular. On the face of it, however, this looks like a fairly standard quality television outing – the decline of a corporate New York family, whose patriarch, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), takes ill at the start of the series, forcing a squabble amongst siblings Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), Siobhan (Sarah Snook) and Connor (Alan Ruck) for who will take control of his empire. Added to the mix are Logan’s third wife, Marcy (Hiam Abbass), Siobhan’s fiancée Tom (Matthew Macfayden) and Connor’s nephew Greg (Nicholas Braun), all of whom form part of an even wider series of competing interests and investments in the Roy family name.
From The Sopranos to Empire, from Breaking Bad to Power, both early and late quality television have mined this image of the decline of the American nuclear family as a structure, institution and mythology. In fact, that decline tends to be the main subject of quality television itself, which raises the nuclear family to a monstrous intensity only to maintain the traditional connection between family and television in an increasingly post-network world. In these cases, depictions of powerful families tend to take one of two forms. First, there are series, such as Breaking Bad, which depict family in an essentially pathological way, even as they revel in the charisma that this pathology produces, and even elegise that pathology as a critical cornerstone of American culture. Second, there are series, such as Shameless, which present family as an essentially comic construction, and revel in its picaresque failures and digressions as what makes it so unique. Whether family is framed as a professional entity, as occurs in Mad Men, or as a military entity, as occurs in Battlestar Galactica, or as a religious entity, as occurs in Big Love, this inability to think of family outside overtly comic or tragic terms is a key aspect of the quality television mode.
By contrast, Succession offers a vision of family that is more in keeping with the discontinuous tonalities of what has come to be known as post-quality television, treading a line between tragedy and comedy that is almost impossible to parse. No doubt, this is exactly the kind of story that might conceivably be told in a Shakespearean lexicon, especially as the parallels to King Lear are so emphatic, and Brian Cox made his name as a stage actor through an especially iconic depiction of Lear. Nevertheless, Succession never quite grants him, or the Roy family, that Shakespearean gravitas, leaving them marooned in an odd place between pathos and bathos that makes it impossible to dismiss them, but also impossible to ever sympathise with them. Unlike so many sentimental visions of the one percent, there’s never any real question about whether the Roys will be able to pull through or maintain their way of life in the face of the precarities and contingencies confronting them, with the result that Succession is never exactly about decline per se, but instead more interested in the ways that wealth – intractable wealth – is remediated and reappropriated.
However, by removing that basic sense of precarity – the fear of losing money – showrunner Jesse Armstrong opens up the series for a much more nuanced and compelling account of how the possession of money, and the fact of wealth, is destabilising and precarious in itself. While no member of the Roy family is ever in danger of being anything less than monstrously rich, the continuous remediations and reconfigurations of their wealth forces their characters to recalibrate in real-time in turn, producing a mode of characterisation that is every bit as suspenseful and surprising as that of reality television. It is as if Armstrong has managed to transplant the reality-principle of reality television onto a fictional series, as each episode draws out the pathologies and narcissisms of these characters in a new way, in what has to be one of the most incredibly and minutely sketched cast of characters in a television series this year. Critically, this continuous, precarious devolution of character – maintained, ironically, by the remediation of unquestioned wealth – does away with the static spectacles of decadent charisma that inform more sentimental depictions of ultra-wealth in both current television and cinema. Instead, these characters seem scarier, eerier and just plain stranger with each passing episode, as we witness the creeping and corrosive effects of ultra-wealth on character in ways that even these characters themselves can’t properly process, parse or understand.
For that reason, there’s something uniquely exhilarating about watching Succession, not just because it manages to render the economic substrate of American culture visible, but because its visions of the ways in which economic precarity manifests itself in and through character does, indeed, feel “real” in a profound and original manner. To that end, Armstrong consciously mimics the syntax and style of reality television, typically organising his episodes around one big set piece – a weekend at a ranch, a vote of no confidence, a wedding in England – and adopting the looming aerial establishing shots that typically give reality television programs such a breathless sense of eventfulness. In some ways, this was also what the Showtime series Billions was going for, but the effect is more powerful here – for all that Billions is powerful in other ways – allowing Armstrong to eventually depict pivotal moments of financial control and types of financial character that would be unrepresentable outside of this real-time, precarious mode of characterisation. In one of the most chilling scenes, Logan steamrolls his way through a vote of no confidence bid, leaving his board not knowing quite what to do just because there is no procedure for regulating his ultra-wealth. In another scene, towards the end, Kendall accuses Logan of being jealous of everything he has given his children, and of their own relative comfort compared to his own childhood, to which Logan more or less agrees as he starts to plot the downfall of the family he helped build, rather than relinquish any modicum of power over it.
Yet while scenes like these may be almost unbearable in how eloquently they expose the role of unregulated financial power in American culture, they only receive their power – and are only capable of being represented in the first place – due to the reality television principle that Armstrong adopts. It’s that reality, ultimately, that makes Succession so eerie, suggesting, as it does, that it’s only in our most precarious, unbearable and contingent moments that we can truly glimpse the real-time factors driving the economic environment that we all inhabit and that shape our characters. By the same token, it’s only in those most precarious of moments that we can glimpse the collateral damage that everyone but the one percent represent in this affective economy – a collateral damage that is momentarily visualised in the extraordinary conclusion to the series, before being rapidly subsumed back into the reality principle that Armstrong promulgates. So brilliant is that ending that is almost seems a shame to have a second season to qualify or dilute it in any way – but, then again, the addictive precarity of Succession makes ten more episodes pretty irresistible too.