Sarah Snook, from left, Alan Ruck, Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong and Kieran Culkin attend the premiere of HBO's "Succession" season four at Jazz at Lincoln Center on March 20, 2023, in New York.
( Charles Sykes
Brooke Gladstone This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. And that's the ghoulish gothic opera theme of the wildly popular show Succession, currently in its fourth and final season on HBO. The show's creator and showrunner, Jesse Armstrong, asserts that succession is inspired by more than just the Murdochs.
Jesse Armstrong If you look at the American media landscape, you have CBS owned by Viacom, which is a family business, the Redstone's. You have NBC, which is a family business owned by Comcast, the Roberts family. You have ABC, which was Disney and which is no longer a family firm. But the politics are kind of Byzantine and not unlike our show. You have the Sinclair family who are buying up most of local TV. You have the Mercer family who are all over the data mining. There are a lot of influential media families in the US for us to think about and draw on.
Brooke Gladstone Which. Sure. But the parallels between the Roy family in succession and the real life Murdochs are hard not to see. You've got the aging media mogul, the sparring kids, the divorces, the young girlfriends, the big sale of much of the company. And it was rumored that some Murdoch family members might have leaked storylines like this family therapy scene to the show.
Brooke Gladstone Robert Thompson is a professor of television, radio and film at Syracuse University. He says the characters in succession are rather Shakespearean, but he objects to the incessant comparisons to King Lear. True, the patriarch, Logan Roy, as his name suggests, is a kind of a king. But that's where the similarity ends.
Robert Thompson In that Logan Roy is a lot smarter than King Lear. It's as though Logan Roy had seen enough productions of Lear to know not to do what Lear does in the very first scene, if I'm not mistaken, of King Lear, the King marches up with a map and says, Here are my territories. I'm going to divide them up between my three children
[King Lear Clip]
Robert Thompson The beginning of King Lear. The heirs are announced. Rupert Murdoch has still not divided up the map.
[King Lear Clip]
Robert Thompson And nor did Logan Roy.
Brooke Gladstone The other big parallel between Logan Roy and Rupert Murdoch is the inseparable relationship between the media and political power.
Robert Thompson Right. In this dance with political power and journalism, administrations come and go. These big mogul run journalistic operations are there for the long run. Fox News has got more chronological continuity than the American Democratic Republic. Think how many presidents, how many Congresses have changed since Fox News starts in the mid 1990s? Political leaders come and go. Rupert Murdoch comes but never goes.
Brooke Gladstone And yet for most people, he's pretty much known as an old guy who has romantic relationships with not so old women and just a very powerful global force of conservatism. What does succession perhaps tell us or doesn't tell us?
Robert Thompson Succession lets us see Logan Roy. This kind of Rupert Murdoch standing in all of these intimate situations because they get to make it all up. People can now watch succession and like a Trojan horse, secretly get in on all the things that are really going on in a big mogul run operation like Murdoch's. That would seem good that we're getting through fiction, some kind of the the foundation of what's going on, in fact. However, I have found, even in my own watching of this show, I'm ashamed to say that there is what I would call the Archie Bunker effect. Remember, Archie Bunker back in the seventies was this bigoted guy who said all kinds of things that were racist and sexist.
[Archie Bunker clip]
Robert Thompson But because he was on every week, he became this kind of loveable bigot.
Brooke Gladstone It is true that Archie Bunker, for all of his bigotry and ignorance, was a lovable figure to many people who felt that he was winking at them. Just like the Stephen Colbert right wing character he played on. The Colbert Report was also seen to the horror of Colbert perhaps being a winking acknowledgment of the truth. But the difference is that Archie Bunker was fundamentally a loser, and Logan Roy is a winner.
Robert Thompson It's true. At the end of every episode of Archie Bunker, he was exposed as the buffoon. He spouted all that racist stuff when Sammy Davis Jr was in his living room. But Sammy Davis, Jr kisses him in the final scene of that episode.
[Archie Bunker clip]
Robert Thompson We get to see the bigot. He becomes lovable, but he is always exposed as the loser and the buffoon. Now we have Logan Roy, who is completely unredeemable, and he always wins. And there is something kind of appealing about that. Logan Roy, in his ruthless success by any means Necessary, I think has got a modern 21st century American appeal. Donald Trump very much played up that. I'm rich, I'm successful, and therefore I should be admired. And I think that might be one of the dangerous and insidious things about succession. Yes, it teaches us maybe about some of the at least metaphorical detail of what's going on with the Murdoch operation, but it also domesticates it. And I am sure there are a number of people you could find if you went out on the street who would be happy to support a Logan Roy for president, but some of them with a wink and a nod, some of them completely seriously.
Brooke Gladstone You have said, though, that if the show were less good, it would probably cleave more to the Murdoch story than it actually does.
Robert Thompson What I think makes succession a fine work of television art is the fact that like so many other things, it is inspired by real things, but it then brings them the art and art of this that allows it to be more interesting. If we're watching the real series, that is Rupert Murdoch. Every now and again, things happen that are really unsatisfying from an artistic, dramatic standpoint. The settlement that just happened is a perfect example of that. So I think it's a testament to succession's quality that it's not directly mirroring what's happening. If nothing else, and I haven't heard Rupert Murdoch talk a lot, but Logan Roy is certainly a more rhetorically dynamic person than Rupert Murdoch is.
[Succession Parody clip]
Robert Thompson You know, in great art, even when you are basing it on something. Let's go back to our friend Shakespeare. His history plays. If you want to know the history of the reign of Richard the Third, you do not watch Shakespeare's Richard the third. No. Oh, there's all kinds of liberties taken both in the source material and everything else. However, if you want an extraordinary, fictional, dramatic, artistic, transcendent experience, you don't go to the sources and read the history of Richard the Third. You watch Shakespeare's Richard.
Brooke Gladstone Right. What about the impact of Murdoch's empire on the broader culture?
Robert Thompson I think Rupert Murdoch has probably been more successful at doing bad things for the future of democracy and the republic that many other people have been doing for a long time. He's just been really, really good at it. However, we also have to acknowledge that within that building up of that empire, some really interesting and I think good things happen. The best example of that would be the Fox Broadcasting Network, and it really did provide alternative programing, including some voices that were not heard in the usual oligopoly of ABC, CBS and NBC. The Simpsons before The Daily Show came along was probably the most trenchant political and social satire we had on all of regular broadcast television. In Living Color would certainly not have gotten the Fox News seal of approval. I always used to say that in many ways it was once again brilliant synergy in that the Fox network would play TV shows that would then give the people on the Fox News Channel next morning something to be outraged about.
Brooke Gladstone This brings us to the final assessment of Rupert Murdoch and his impact on the culture and what he really cared about.
Robert Thompson Rupert Murdoch, I think, in the end will be most remembered for really solidifying a major change in the way we think about what we once called journalism. And I think in almost every case, he did that to the detriment of real journalism.
Brooke Gladstone And there's no way The Simpsons can compensate for that.
Robert Thompson If I'm up at the gates of St Peter's and I'm putting The Simpsons on one end of the scale and Fox News on the other end of the scale. I'm sorry, Bart, but I just don't think you're going to outweigh that.
Brooke Gladstone Bob Thompson, thank you very much.
Robert Thompson It's my pleasure. Thank you.
Brooke Gladstone Robert Thompson is pop culture scholar at Syracuse's Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Brooke Gladstone Coming up, the cozy relationship between Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crowe is about something much larger than a simple quid pro quo. This is on the media.
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