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Succession v. Ted Lasso
The Ends of Two Extraordinary Opposites
This week marks a strange American moment. Two TV series with profound things to say about our culture are coming to an end: Succession and Ted Lasso. They were polar opposites, dark and light, cynical and hopeful. They had relatively small audiences, especially compared to the days when everyone watched Lucy and Gunsmoke and Walter Cronkite. But they had a deep impact on the coastal elites, especially Succession, which played to the fashionable pessimism that shrouds the national mood.
Kurt Andersen, one of our great zeitgeist arbiters—and perfect for this assignment—does the Succession obituary for the New York Times:
Its unlikable main characters — a superrich puppet master and his cynical, entitled children who together run a huge media corporation [based, sort of, well, a lot, on Rupert Murdoch and his children] — are brilliant exemplars of a caste everyone nowadays really loves to hate. A critical mass of Americans has come to understand that big business and the rich hijacked and corrupted our political economy over the past several decades. The show resonated, too, because during the same period, the commingling of American TV news (and thus politics) and show business has accelerated and played a crucial role in the national unraveling.
In other words, these days—thank you, Oscar Wilde—nothing succeeds like excess. But in this case the unlikeable characters were presented amidst a raging torrent of excellence. In recent weeks, there have been critical appreciations of the classical brilliance of Succession’s musical score, its fashions, its acting, its jittery, hand-held camerawork which could, at times, put the audience into an enervated state that must resemble meth-withdrawal. Above all, there was the deathless cleverness of its writing. There were stentorian set piece speeches, but the amazements were the sentence fragments, the stuttered assertions started and stopped and then continued to their disastrous conclusions, the off-the-cuff zingers, the extravagant wordplay that seemed extemporaneous and, perhaps, sometimes was. It was fresher than fresh-squeezed. And the master of it was Kieran Culkin, who played Roman, the second son, with offhand ferocity. He was the most obnoxious of the litter, and he stole the show.
But I wonder if Andersen is right, whether a critical mass of Americans “has come to understand” that big business and the rich have hijacked and corrupted our political culture. The public square certainly has been debased, but the public comprehension of that is limited. Especially in a country where a “critical mass” could re-make a heinous sociopath named Donald Trump—another heir, a successor in his own family’s succession battle—the next President of the United States. Succession is also a Trump story, a Baby Boom parable about a generation of legatees—the most fortunate in human history—who took the family business, liberal democracy, and ran it aground. The most important line delivered by the pater familias, Logan Roy, to his children, is: “I love you, but you’re not serious people.”
I have that fear about us. That we’re ill-equipped to govern ourselves. In another telling moment—another brilliant set-piece speech—Logan Roy’s liberal brother, Evan, delivers an unscheduled eulogy at Logan’s funeral: he talks about how he and his brother suffered, forced to sit perfectly quiet and still for days, for fear of Nazi u-boats during their terrifying trans-Atlantic passage in World War II. That desperation toughened them, introduced them at an early age to the reality of evil, a reality of consequence, of mortality. A reality requiring discipline that the Succession heirs—and Generations X, Y, Z and their Baby Boom parents—never faced. There was never a possibility that their yacht could actually be torpedoed; only metaphorically. Is it possible that our lassitude, our lack of rigor, is what enabled the predatory rich to impose the gilded, narcotic entitlement that has limited our ability to be serious people, to make the sacrifices necessary to maintain democracy? Privilege corrupts more subtly, but more comprehensively, than power does. We have enabled a society where no one needs take responsibility for much of anything, where there is no consequence to invective or lies or moral indolence. No one succeeds at Succession except—spoiler alert—the middle-class kid from the midwest who is willing to abandon any principles he may have had, and any shred of dignity, in order to prevail.
And then, from some other planet in a galaxy far away, there is Ted Lasso, the American football coach hired to manage a Premier League soccer team—in an act of vengeful destruction by an aggrieved owner—and somehow manages to win everyone over. Actually, not somehow. He does it with generosity and kindness; he is the precise opposite of the Succession siblings. At first, his utter decency is seen as silliness by the Brits—and then it infects them all, in the most charming way. This used to be a common American fantasy—all those Frank Capra and Preston Sturges movies, about the honorable little guy who bests the cynical plutocrats. It is a sensibility that still exists in America but has been corroded by mistrust. This is the triumph of Jason Sudeikis, who conceived the show and wrote much of it and stars in it—and has said he doesn’t want to do it anymore.
Here’s a story: On one of my road trips for Time Magazine, I sat with a group of neighbors in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. One woman, who had moved from somewhere more urban—as I remember it—talked about the comfort of having a church, a place “I know where to bring a casserole if there’s a tornado.” I wrote that in admiration, and she wrote an angry letter to the editor. She assumed that I, New York cynical city slicker, was making fun of her. The fact is, I love casseroles—tuna noodle, yum!—and I envied her sense of community.
Ted Lasso, straight out of Kansas, knows where to bring his special shortbread cookies—to the club owner, the woman so embittered that she wants to destroy the soccer team she won from her husband in their divorce proceedings. I’m not sure how many people watch the show—probably something like the 8 million who watch Succession—but I wish it were more. It has been the perfect antidote to the poison of the Trump years. It was about the potency of kindness. The casserole was overcooked at times; its celebration of the healing power of therapy could get a bit clammy. But it was brilliantly funny and treated its characters with dignity, no matter how silly they got. It was comfort food and I’ll miss my weekly dose.
I’m still thinking about that casserole, though—especially today, after reading Tom Edsall’s piece in the Times about how we’ve become deluded about our political opponents, how we’ve become conditioned to think the worst of them, how we’ve come to act more like the characters in Succession than those in Ted Lasso. I would put a lot of this at the feet of Rupert Murdoch, the real-life Logan Roy, who understood that there was more money to be made in anger than in comity, who has created this, as Edsall writes:
In other words, the irrational element of partisan hostility has seemingly created a political culture resistant to correction or reform. If so, the nation is stuck, at least for the time being, in a destructive cyclical pattern that no one so far has found a way to escape.
Finally, it should be noted that Succession and Ted Lasso have ended their runs in a week when a casserole—or sausage, more appropriately—was successfully delivered to the public A debt ceiling deal, a relatively meaningless event in the history of the Republic, a deal with only minimal consequences. But a deal. A deal. An achievement that eluded the siblings in Succession. A deal, in a system my fellow columniators insist is hopelessly broken. Perhaps it isn’t.
In the end, however brilliant and entertaining Succession was, its cynicism and pessimism may be a tad too convenient for the woe-is-me crowd. Perhaps those of us who consider ourselves so damn sophisticated and world-weary that any sort of kindness seems foolish should go to the kitchen, grab the Bumble Bee and the Campbells Mushroom soup and the egg noodles, and the potato chips to be crushed for the topping, and start whipping up something to take to a neighbor, or the local soup kitchen…or maybe some shortbread cookies for the boss.
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