Warning: spoilers for ‘Succession’ and ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ below
HBO, one of the most respected TV networks of all time, has the biggest, boldest and most discussed critique of the wealthy in their TV show, “Succession.” Yet what HBO perhaps does not know, is that this year HBO has already been bested in the genre by the “Queen of the Trash” network, Bravo, and its show, “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
“Succession” tells the story of Logan Roy, the owner of media conglomerate Waystar Royco, and his children, to whom he keeps dangling the prospect of taking over the company. The show, which is returning for its much-anticipated third season this fall, has won a slew of Emmys — including “Best Drama” for its most recent season — and been placed on just about every critics’ year-end list. With “Succession” as its figurehead (and “White Lotus” on its heels), HBO has been leading the pack in terms of nuanced studies of whiteness, wealth, power and privilege in the TV world. Despite all these successes, when I think of what’s actually influenced my understanding on the subject, I keep returning to “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
“The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” long renowned for its fake drama, has been dealing with drama that is all too real this season. Longtime housewife Erika Girardi’s husband Tom Girardi, who she’s currently in the process of divorcing, is being indicted for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars from his clients’ settlement money, including $20 million put into Erika’s account. The process of seeing Erika’s life, and what she wants to portray as her life, crumble, as well as following the process of watching the other women place their alliances, is electric television.
The problem with “Succession” is that while it is a political show, its pacing does not always know that. The second season’s most haunting scene came in the penultimate episode. Shiv, daughter of Logan and a fan favorite since the start, convinces a woman, Kira, who intended to testify against Waystar Royco for rampant sexual assault and mistreatment of employees, not to testify. Shiv alternately consoles, threatens and therapizes Kira until she gets what she wants. The scene is heart-wrenching, especially since Shiv was originally introduced to the audience as the “good” member of the family, as she worked for a character modeled after Bernie Sanders in the first season.
Ultimately though, that stunning scene is undercut by its placement in the season and the other plot developments that do not serve the thesis of the show. This thesis, that the world is being controlled by people making decisions based on personal lives, not wider moral “rightness.” The scene is not even on YouTube. What is on YouTube are a multiplicity of videos dedicated to Shiv’s interpersonal relationships with her family members and fancams set to “Primadonna Girl” by Marina and the Diamonds. The show is so fast-paced that the moments that stand out are not quiet moments of commentary, but rather the centered moments of the plot being driven forward. Shiv’s brother, Kendall, betrays his father at the end of the season and that moment has inspired approximately eight thousand think pieces in its wake, and even more tweets. While there has been some coverage of Shiv’s morality, it seems like the moral degradation is just not as appealing to talk about as plot twists. And if the general audience is missing your thesis that intensely, that’s a mistake on the part of the creators. It is easy to see “Succession” as merely glamorous, a show with twists akin to “Game of Thrones,” and without a moral center.
This “Housewives” season does not have this problem. Watching Erika degrade never feels glamorous, despite her having placed a premium on wealth, above all else. Erika has, at the very least, turned a willful eye away from her husband’s business dealings for upwards of 15 years and is now scrambling to get her life together. She’s lying, lashing out and being caught doing it, all the while taking all women associated with her down at the same time. The women who have stood by Erika (Lisa Rinna, Kyle Richards, etc.) are more and more often being painted as willing abetters to a woman whose personal life has led to hardships for the vulnerable people Tom has taken advantage of. When Erika and Tom are the subjects of an investigative journalism piece by a Los Angeles Times article, many of her supporters reveal that they could not make it through the entire article, blaming the length. Yet, as these same supporters turn to shambles as they watch Erika go up in flames, it seems as though they did not want to read it in the first place. A meta-narrative is developing where the women are realizing that on the reality show they’ve made part of their lives, they have thrown their support behind the wrong person. The show now becomes the other women struggling between the moralizing lens of the camera, which they know is judging them, and their real-life association with Erika, a friendship based on mutual wealth.
While there are subplots this season, Erika’s degradation is the primary story of the show. While “Succession” leaves me in awe of wealth, Erika’s story disgusts me. It may be addictive television, but this season of Housewives never feels aspirational. As “Succession” attempts once again to tell its story of wealth, I hope it can keep up with Bravo’s trash TV.