Art

Prestige Television Turns Its Attention to Wealth. Why?

The Crown and Succession have captured viewers' attention with fantasies of luxury tinged with existential despair. Critic Lara Zarum asks why.

Lara Zarum

Graeme Hunter HBO
Still from HBO's Succession.

The Royals had made a sacrafice;  they’d parted with a cherished family yacht. In the third season of The Crown—the acclaimed television drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II that landed on Netflix in November—Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) makes this shocking announcement on a disastrous 1969 appearance on Meet the Press, during which he complains that the royal family hasn’t received a pay raise in a decade. Following the debacle, he gathers his family in a Buckingham Palace drawing-room to make a case for their participation in a BBC documentary about their lives. The film, Philip explains, will prove “what good value we represent—how much we deserve the taxpayers’ money.”

The line could easily have been uttered by Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the billionaire patriarch of an American media dynasty on HBO’s Succession. Jesse Armstrong, creator of the comedy/drama, practically uses a Sharpie to draw parallels between the Roy family and a royal family: just look at how he’s named the show and its central clan. In its third season, The Crown seems to reciprocate this metaphor, offering up a ruling family in the throes of a new zeitgeist and, as a result, acting more and more like a business—not by making fundamental changes, but by adjusting its PR strategy. Like Succession, The Crown is a vision of family as corporation, a dynamic in which true intimacy is a poison cloud threatening to blot out the business at hand. At a time when TV viewers have more options than ever before (and when an increasingly small number of people control the world’s wealth), these series have stood out from the pack by Trojan-horsing an all-too-relatable subject— domestic cruelty—into settings most of us can only dream of. Succession and The Crown are about a specific kind of generational abuse: the kind that arises when your family is, first and foremost, an institution.

Aesthetically, the two shows present competing versions of opulence. The Crown takes place in literally palatial settings, rooms so big and baroque that they threaten to swallow the characters whole. Succession, on the other hand, presents a colder, more contemporary style of extreme wealth: monochromatic color schemes, wall-to-wall glass, sleek surfaces with minimal clutter. The sheer vastness of either scenario sends a message: these figures of outsized power and influence are, in reality, small people dwarfed by big situations—so much power in the hands of a few silver-spoon kids. But what takes these shows beyond lifestyle porn is the fact that those kids are, on the whole, fairly miserable. The degree to which both The Crown and Succession occupy themselves with the generational trauma of being born into an empire is striking. The queen’s life-of-the-party sister, Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), is stuck in an unfulfilling marriage and spends most of her time laid up in bed; in the previous season, a rift forms between Margaret and her sister when Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) refuses to grant her permission to marry the man she loves. The queen’s children, Charles and Anne (Josh O’Connor and Erin Doherty), are depicted as lively young people muffled by the dreariness of duty.

In Succession, the burden of being one of Logan Roy’s offspring is even starker. The adult Roy siblings, Connor (Alan Ruck), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Shiv (Sarah Snook), may look glossy and fresh in their designer suits but, inside, they’re emotionally desiccated. Connor, the eldest—who feels so simultaneously neglected and entitled that he launches a long-shot bid for president—has agreed to fund his call-girl partner’s theatrical ambitions in exchange for her affection. Kendall is a drug addict who craves a familial love that he can never quite access. Roman, who enjoyed being locked in a dog crate as a child, struggles to perform sexually unless he’s masturbating to the dulcet tones of the company lawyer berating him. And Shiv chose the night of her wedding to inform her head-over-heels husband that she wants to sleep with other people. The source of these various intimacy allergies is, of course, their parents, who can’t bear to hold a meaningful conversation with their children unless it’s centered on business.

BTS shot from The Crown. Courtesy of Netflix.

Succession and The Crown share a central irony: The fact that the Roysy and the royals are marked for power from the moment of their birth is also the reason they’re so poorly suited for it. These people are characterized by a fundamental disconnect between their world and the one that looms—through the design of their homes, quite literally—below. Their total alienation from the people they govern is both funny and horrifying. By The Crown’s most recent season, set in the 1960s and ’70s, Elizabeth understands that her job is to be as passive and impartial as she can get away with, to avoid the appearance of putting her thumb on the scale. She has to be persuaded, over the course of a week, to visit the site of a mining accident that killed over 100 children. She gets her dispatches from the outside world through the prime minister or via television.

The Roys regard the public as a teeming mass of interests that threaten their profits and, like the royals, their security; a salient moment in The Crown’s new season comes when the queen declares, “Ritual and mystery…it keeps us hidden while still in plain sight…it’s not there to keep us apart, it is there to keep us alive.” Though the show doesn’t dwell on that last word, it’s a subtle reminder that the drama of The Crown isn’t the drama of governance; what the royal family actually does is damage control, carefully calibrated to keep the public from becoming too incensed by the absurdity of the monarchy’s existence. The Roys are stuck in a similar feedback loop of self-interest, in which the shrewd head of family/state is perpetually putting out fires caused by his spoiled, screwed-up children—the very same children that are poised to
inherit the crown, proverbial or literal.

In the finale of Succession’s second season, Logan gathers his children and his closest advisors on a private yacht to discuss which member of his inner circle will take the fall for a recently publicized scandal. (Given that the scandal involves covered-up crimes that took place on company-owned yachts, the choice of getaway is beautifully ironic—and symbolic of the family’s outrageous entitlement.) Companies, Logan argues, don’t really exist as such; they’re just a “collection of financial interests.” But his company is different: “This exists because it’s a family. We are a family.” What makes Logan’s increasingly toxic firm legitimate is blood—the same thing that justifies the royal family’s continued existence and the only thing the heirs of both institutions can’t escape or sell. Maybe when power is inherited rather than earned, it’s less a blessing than a curse. At least, that’s the gift these series give us, the teeming mass of viewers hunkered on IKEA couches: the notion that wealth and influence will ruin your life.