The dysfunctions of the wealthy and powerful have been a part of fiction just as long as we’ve been expected to put up with it – which sadly means a very long time. This tradition of the proles and middle class enjoying the bad behavior of the elites stretches back to the Greeks, to Shakespeare, and the twin Eighties megahits of Dynasty and Dallas, and it’s crawled into the 21st century as well (Arrested Development, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Empire). As inequality simply gets worse and worse and worse to the utter indifference of anyone in power, and recent trends concentrated media power further into the hands of the few, it made sense that audiences flocked to these kinds of shows and movies.
HBO hosts two TV series about the rich concurrently: The Righteous Gemstones and Succession. Future seasons were delayed by COVID, with one show is shooting season two while the other is set to premiere in mid-October. Each has the same basic DNA of being dramedies about wealthy families in disarray, both influenced by King Lear in the setup of an powerful older man struggling with his three adult children. Whereas Gemstones, being the brainchild of Jodi Hill and Danny McBride, feels virtually filmed and designed for a cult audience, Succession is an international co-production filmed with a high budget, award-winning talent (Adam MacKay! Brian Cox! Writers from The Thick of It!), and of course, in spite of shaky cam, exquisite production values. Naturally the show is now nominated for several Emmys.
Yet it’s The Righteous Gemstones that emerges as a profound, deeply moving work of televisual art at the end of its first season, and Succession unmasked by season two as at best frustrating and at worst a hollow cavalcade of mockery.
The truth is that while Succession has many elements that make it appear to be a great show, like many post-Sopranos prestige dramas it buckles under the weight of expectations. The need for critical acclaim, for comedy and tragedy to exist in the same space, for gloss and for single cam close ups, to humiliate the characters while making them “tragic”: it’s just too much. Meanwhile The Righteous Gemstones takes a wildly different approach in dramatic technique by presenting the characters without contempt or apology. It’s one of the best shows on television.
The two series demonstrate very disparate trends in criticism and art, and how those trends can be actively crucial to good storytelling. In keeping with a notion of post-Sopranos Prestige TV, Succession can’t stop nudging the audience about how awful the characters are. The Righteous Gemstones is in stark contrast guided by judgement mixed with empathy. That’s the thornier path to take here, but it’s the one that leads to purity, to a kind of grace.
Succession follows the billionaire Roy family, whose Waystar Royco media empire was built by ruthless eighty year old patriarch Logan Roy, and their various hangers-on. In the aftermath of Logan’s stroke, his children Kendall, Roman, and Shiv increasingly struggle for influence as well as the ultimate goal of becoming heir to the Waystar CEO position. (Older, delusional failson Connor is virtually out of the running even if he thinks there’s a chance.) Other players have a hand as well, including Tom, Shiv’s sycophantic fiance, and Greg, the second cousin whose awkward demeanor hides a talent for Machiavellian plotting. The family exchanges betrayals, “Fuck off”’s, and brutal insults with the ease of people who haven’t had to be nice to get what they want in a long, long time. There is love here, especially among the siblings who have been profoundly damaged by Logan’s machinations, but they’re almost incapable of expressing it sincerely. Money and power have utterly poisoned everyone at Waystar, and the moments of humanity are basically scattershot.
Watching it, the tone of Succession creates a strange cognitive dissonance for the viewer; it’s an hour long prestige series, unlike fellow HBO dramedies Barry and Gemstones, but the best description of it that comes to mind is “a drama that openly mocks the characters”. The handheld camera tracks through these cold, lavish spaces, witnessing the Roys’ various humiliations with restless intimacy. In The Los Angeles Review of Books, Jorge Cotte writes that “the camera swings to captures reactions and speechlessness, creating movement with pans and zooms that track the flow of a conversation brushing against dissent, a scene organizing itself around whoever might have the best shot at the moment.” The Roys as well as the filmmaking must constantly keep up or can fuck off. And they often cannot stay ahead, perpetually either being owned (“He’s like an old, beaten dog”) or owning themselves through their own dumbass blunders, such as Roman accidentally blowing up a rocket on launch. Long-lasting shots linger on the vast spaces that tower over the Roys. Even the classical influenced score plays with how these spoiled children don’t belong anywhere near these stately penthouses.
The Gemstones meanwhile are right at home within their enormous compound. Prodigal adult son Jesse drives around the North Carolina estate in a golf cart, lit with the swagger only a Danny McBride character – or a very rich man – could possess. The family are televangelists whose own empire was built by their parents, Eli and true believer Aimee-Lee Gemstone. Opening shortly after Aimee-Lee’s death, the characters are animated not just by grief but a sense that “the chickens are coming home to roost”, that maybe all of this was the wrong way to spread the Word. That notion of consequence hits Jesse when he’s blackmailed for an incriminating videotape. The rest of the plot follows as the Gemstones struggle to move forward from their loss, preach, and maybe – just maybe – learn how to be good.
A recent trend in popular criticism has been a demand for “morally correct” fiction. Not just drastically needed stories about diverse peoples and subjects, no. We need art (always a “we” in these arguments, as if surely no one could disagree) that will teach its audience something, that condemns bad behavior. Consider the writers who were pissed that The Wolf of Wall Street wasn’t harsh enough on it’s subject (as if Jordan’s behavior isn’t enough rope), or one television critic happy that The Americans series finale had given the characters “the ending they deserve”. This extends to arguments over artistic transgression and representation as well, but then Wesley Morris has already written eloquently and extensively on that subject in his essay “The Morality Wars”. His argument there works in this context as well, that puritanical attitudes towards art will result in a “culture whose artistic value has been replaced by moral judgment and leaves us with monocriticism.”
There is something very powerful about any narrative where justice (or really “order”) is restored to place. It satisfies some ancient instinct for confirmation of the social structures, for balance to be restored to the world. The ending of The Shield is the most purely cathartic of any television series because the Strike Team’s fate feels inevitable. It is the result of who they are, everything they have done, and the circumstances that led them to this point.
But any demand that popular art should always confirm the moral standard of decency, any notion of a work being intrinsically “good” as long as it punishes “the bad guys” – and thus “bad” if it doesn’t carry out these demands – not only demeans the audience and cheapens the story, it’s degrading to the greater meaning that can be found in storytelling: explaining in some capacity who people really are, what they are capable of, and “do the things they do”(as Don Draper puts it).
Succession meanwhile has little to no moral range except varying degrees of “venal and manipulative”. Even The Sopranos used Melfi as a foil to Tony and Chris’ raw self-interest. The Roys are so selfish that watching them make moral choices isn’t suspenseful after a few episodes. The audience already knows they’ll make the wrong decision nearly every time so it’s simply a matter of waiting and viewing isolated people in gorgeous vistas (and of course feeling delighted that they know what happens). This isn’t drama, it’s a series of exercises with one outcome. Only Kendall, the would-be heir to the Roy empire who struggles with daddy worship and drug addiction, really tries to save his soul, but his big reveal at the end of Season Two is still just a power play, another ploy to move up the ladder. Doesn’t help either that Succession just doesn’t have much of a plot (more on this later). Nothing ever moves, so the characters don’t really either. Instead they only get worse.
And what that means is Succession gets the audience to have it’s cake and eat it too. The writers feign compassion for the privileged hell of the characters while simultaneously depicting them as absolutely ridiculous, and while that choice would be fine in a strict comedy, it doesn’t work nearly as well when Succession has the format of an hour long prestige drama. The end result is a show that encourages the viewers to jeer the humiliations and various moments of ownage that make up the lives of the Roy clan, then sheds crocodile tears for them in the process. All on a network themselves catering to wealthy and middle class subscribers perhaps looking for an easy target and (maybe) some self-flagellation.
Not that The Righteous Gemstones isn’t asking the audience to laugh at, for example, Judy Gemstone’s bonkers confession to her ex about her kidnapping a child. That shit is funny. But the genius of Jody Hill and Danny McBride’s collective body of work, especially their masterpiece Eastbound & Down, is that they create comedies with dramatic sensibilities. Their characters are typically selfish, isolated men and women, but there’s a bedrock of humanity to them that can’t be shrugged off too easily. Hill/McBride, often in conference with director David Gordon Green, not only develop strong plots but also a strong visual look for their shows that requires a certain identification with the likes of Kenny Powers and Lee Russell. The viewer is forced to understand them to a degree that critics sometimes like to call “uncomfortable”.
Yet Danny McBride has talked about writing the show with the view that the family genuinely loves and looks out for each other when their backs are against the wall. That guiding principle incites the plot when the blackmail turns out to have been started close to home, but more importantly, it makes the audience care about flawed, even rotten people. Scenes depict wild insults, comparable to Succession, flying across the family dinner table – “ I hope the devil fucks you dry” – but also Jesse and his siblings reaching out to their dad about his grief, as well as Judy’s longing for respect. Eli and his family are messed up people but its love and faith that animate their actions, not just power and parental approval.
Because the Gemstones are fools and sinners, sure, but they’re not damned. Drama doesn’t really have that conception of people anyway. In classical drama, morality and character dictate action, characters with differing moralities act in ways that can oppose one another, and that naturally builds consequences up and up until a cathartic, inevitable conclusion. There’s something inherently terrifying about the utter agency this involves; we are responsible for our own actions and for whatever comes next. (Not for nothing does Aristotle note in Poetics that a great tragedy should evoke “pity and fear” from the audience.) But that also means people can change. They grow and respond to different circumstances, they learn about themselves. Drama is based on a notion that has resonated for thousands of years: humans aren’t defined entirely by circumstance. We are what we choose.
Righteous Gemstones is actually a kind of pure dramedy in a way Succession can’t be entirely by design. The former has a full on dramatic plot – Jesse’s blackmail – and actions that creates consequences for the whole cast up until a surprising but natural conclusion. Succession? Not so much. There’s a corporate “bear hug” that gets pushed to the background for the sophomore season, mergers get introduced then dropped quickly, subplots feel like ornamentation to the actual subject of the material (rich people are toxic). Their actions end up feeling meaningless because they have too much power for any negative outcome to affect them; wealth (and the writing) actively insulates the Roys from anchoring a real drama. Is it worth watching six to eight seasons of people trapped in hell if they’re never truly punished?
Ultimately the Gemstones are compelling exactly because they can change, because the creators align dramatic structure (action-consequence-ending) with the Christianity that permeates the family’s lives. The show opens on the characters messing up a mass baptism and Eli naming the family “an abomination”. It ends when each of them have begun to atone for their misdeeds, when they can humble themselves in front of those they’ve wronged, and forgive those who have trespassed against them. Only then do the Gemstones start to heal, absolved for their sins.
There isn’t one strict definition of “grace” in the Christian faith. Theologians and sects have debated and re-interpreted the concept literally for millennia and come to widely varied conclusions. The simplest description I’ve found is that grace is God’s love for humanity, his forgiveness for our sins. Corinthians 12:9 contains the passage “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” The Christian God is powerful enough to love mankind regardless of their shortcomings. Even at their worst, they’re forgiven by virtue of that love.
Just as God endows humans with grace, great drama is blessed with the writer’s love for their creation. Succession isn’t a bad drama for its plot, its a bad drama because the writing throttles back on any greater compassion. Why? Because its hard. It’s hard to write sympathetic yet awful characters, hard to map out a complete and linear plot. Its much easier to let the viewer know the writer is in on how rotten the characters are, easier to make the subtext of each scene obvious. And Succession is fun (at first) but its so profoundly empty. Gemstones is imbued with a sense of grace. It depicts the absurdities of the family without any jeers or obvious jabs. It asks viewers to empathize, to recognize their faults while seeing their struggle to become better people.
That’s a much more difficult task but absolutely necessary; demanding that writers spell out their morality in giant neon letters isn’t just hazardous to their work, it’s detrimental to that basic mission of true comprehension. The best dramas don’t tell audiences how to feel, they show people who they are and what they can be. That task is as vital now as it was thousands of years ago, and shows like Succession dilute and cheapen this where Righteous Gemstones feels actively invigorated by the need to meet that goal. The final image of Gemstones’ first season is two men digging together in Haiti to find clean water, silently putting in the work of being good. All modern drama should have that same ethos: intelligently and carefully portraying the human capacity for enormous good, enormous evil, and enormous change.