'Succession': Sociologists Explain Fans' Fascination With Repugnant Heroes

Succession S02E08 Still - Publicity - H 2019
Graeme Hunter/HBO

[This story contains spoilers for Succession seasons one and two.]

The television landscape has long been paved with prestige dramas and dark comedies about the morally and ethically repugnant that audiences couldn’t help but care for deeply. (See: The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, among so many others.) And while it’s up for debate whether or not the Emmy-winning HBO series Succession falls under the same antihero umbrella, there’s no question that the show's Roys, a fictitious family that owns a media conglomerate, has struck a nerve with fans. 

Now wrapping up its second season, Succession has won two Emmys and generated online quizzes and a Pusha T remix of Nicholas Brittel’s beloved opening credits theme song. While the show’s ratings aren’t quite in Game of Thrones territory yet, viewership went up 22 percent from seasons one to two. 

The devoted fan base for the show is somewhat surprising, given that the Roys are an amalgamation of divisive one-percenter families including the Murdochs, Trumps and Redstones (as creatives and castmembers have said in interviews) interspersed with fictional elements, and behave in various revolting ways. As comedian Julia Shiplett stated on Twitter, “I have that disease where I both despise and would have sex with everyone in Succession.” Author and critic Andy Greenwald joked that he went from initially feeling “Eh” about the show to wanting to get a Cousin Greg tattoo. 

So, why do fans love to hate the Roys (or hate to love them) so much? Sociologists posit several theories. “A starting hypothesis would be that part of your interest and enjoyment of the show has to do with your appreciation of its [storytelling],” says Dr. Ted Nannicelli, the author of Appreciating the Art of Television: A Philosophical Perspective. “The characters may be unpleasant, but they are three-dimensional and the dialogue is sharp and witty. And of course, there is also the narrative, which is intriguing in its universality (e.g. King Lear) and its topicality.” 

Indeed, while the tragicomedy of Succession could fit into any era (the "Boar on the Floor" game alone was Shakespearean in its grim power dynamics and familial struggles), the show feels firmly rooted in 2019. In the penultimate episode, the Roys were called to testify before Congress the same week it was reported that there is growing support among Americans for impeachment proceedings for President Trump. 

Tom Streeter, a professor of Information and Media Studies at Western University, likens Succession to compelling dramas about the rich that came long before it, including The Great Gatsby and Dallas. “One could say Succession brings 21st century edginess and an awareness of family dysfunction to the tradition, and adjustment to the context of post-2008 disappointment with deregulation and with Wall Street in general.” 

Dr. Laura Grindstaff, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis, explains that some viewers may feel ethically superior to the show's characters despite their material advantages (after all, a viewer may take those Succession quizzes, but at the end of the day no one likely wants to be a Logan Roy or a Tom Wambsgans). Streeter agrees, supposing that some viewers may watch this show and end up thinking, “Maybe nobody should inherit anything?” 

While viewers may feel some aspirational desire regarding the Roys' lifestyle (sans raccoons in the fireplace, the second season's Hamptons "summer palace" does look pretty nice), Grindstaff says that it’s their “flaws, shortcomings and wrongdoings” that give the audience “a sense of superiority or vindication.” 

And while characters' actions might be repugnant in real life, that the show is fiction makes it accessible and enjoyable, experts say. “Because it is a fiction, [viewers] are willing to entertain or imagine certain scenarios and events that they would avoid in real life,” says Nannicelli. For example: Kendall accidentally killed someone and covered it up in the first season, and in the latest episode of the second season, Shiv talked a sexual harassment victim out of testifying to Congress. 

Even so, Succession’s narrative also offers a reasonable justification of the flaws of Kendall, Shiv, Roman, and Connor considering some of the people around them are so much worse than they are — like, say, the late Lester, who this season was accused by coworkers of sexual misconduct. Nannicelli explains that “our familiarity with characters disposes us to liking them,” often justifying their awful behavior. That familiarity led to fans' love of Walter White on Breaking Bad; he was arguably more ethical than the show's worse “villains” like the cousins or Gus Fring. 

Succession may also serve as a means for viewers to walk through the emotions of feeling frustrated and/or powerless over our current political landscape and income inequalities, Grindstaff says. “The cultural narrative here is that wealth corrupts,” she says. “When super-wealthy individuals or families suffer as a result of their faulty moral compass, it may open up a space for audiences to identify and ‘forgive’ or absolve the corruption because a price is being paid.” 

This is especially true of the long-suffering children of Logan Roy, who have weathered physical abuse (Roman got a hearty slap in a recent episode in the second season) and emotional manipulation (they were used as bargaining tools for their mother’s share of the fortune), says Nannicelli. “Their father is an asshole who has stunted their emotional development," Nannicelli adds. "No matter how much distaste we have for various aspects of Kendall’s personality, it is hard not to feel sorry for the guy when the first thing Logan says to him when he wakes up is: ‘You’re a f***ing idiot.’” 

Another reason viewers aren't not totally repelled by the characters and storylines in Succession may be that the show doesn't offer an earnest storyline with a morally-just protagonist like Wonder Woman or Harry Potter: the characters are designed to be disliked. “The narration offers us a satirical or ironic perspective on the characters and their foibles, which likely meshes with how we think the characters ought to be viewed,” Nannicelli says. Kendall is often seen as ridiculous (who can possibly forget that rap?) and Roman is often the brunt of viewer jokes due to his sexual proclivities

The real turnoff in movies or television, Nannicelli explains, is when characters seem like heroes “but then the rug gets pulled out from under us and the protagonist turns out to not be morally good.” A prime example: Daenerys Targaryen’s 360-shift from hero to war criminal in the last few episodes of Game of Thrones.

Still, there’s the hope, or at least the intriguing chance, that characters like Kendall or Shiv are actually good deep down, Nannicelli explains. While viewers have no control over the real-life figures like that of the Murdochs or the Trumps, Grindstaff says that good fictional stories like that in Succession “give us emotional realness — feelings, dilemmas, challenges, joys, successes — that we can relate to and see ourselves in, but packaged in a fictional world that allows us room to fantasize.” 

What you take away from Succession, ultimately, varies from person to person, says Streeter: “I imagine some folks feel some righteousness in seeing the one percent represented as fools and cads rather than as Ayn Rand-type entrepreneurial heroes. Others may like to fantasize about what they would do if they had that kind of wealth and power." At the end of the day, "What viewers take away from it is ultimately an empirical question.”