successive shifts in self
finding balance in our television
Ah, winter break. The most wonderful time of the year: binge season. Why should I traverse the world or expand my self-knowledge when I can simply lounge in bed with quality entertainment? Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, even Crackle—with the age of streaming wars sweeping down upon us, there’s more content to watch than ever before. For this aspiring actor and screenwriter, that means it’s way easier to find the “good shit” to learn from. Whatever that means.
Yes, you read that right: Having made the highly dubious choice to pursue a career in filmmaking, what I watch must matter, even in my free time. Now at first glance, this is all a movie obsessive could ask for. Spend twelve hours a day taking in television! It’s research! But this cure-all excuse for endless basement binge sessions can only work for so long; what happens when your program of choice has a name like High School Musical: The Musical: The Series? You read that right, Wildcat; this show is real—and a serious challenge to my self-imposed viewing standards. It’s addictive as hell. Will Ricky and Nini end up together, or will that asshole EJ (seriously, f*ck that kid, no offense to real EJ’s) keep meddling? Will Gina get over her crazy ambitions and allow herself a genuine connection with the cute skateboarding boy? Why can’t every goddamn person in this television program just tell each other how they feel and get it over with?!!?
Eventually, the resurfacing of the film nerd mentality that shamelessly judges your content choices becomes pretty much inevitable. Yes, while that uber-pretentious film crit living in your head couldn’t possibly prevent you from loving that stupendous Lucas Grabeel cameo, you’ll nevertheless be left with a continuous nagging feeling that says you’re wasting precious time. That the wildly entertaining, yet inarguably…“silly” content at hand is somehow a step down from the more “prestige” material you were taught to study and emulate. Can I learn from the likes of Parasite and also unironically love HSM:TM:TS? Will I ever get used to that insanely elaborate acronym?
I’ll admit, I’ve always been a perfectionist. The desire and drive to be better—no, the best—regardless of the effect on my mental health, has guided my every move since I acted in Diary of a Wimpy Kid and thought what’s next? The odd distinction of already being in my future career quickly instilled a sense of fear within me, one that told me I could never rest upon my laurels. My dreams were my reality, and I had to keep the ball rolling. New projects, new victories, new validation were necessary. And now, 10 years later, as graduation looms like a cloud above my head, the question of future endeavors—and the knowledge that success is most assuredly not guaranteed—continues to chip away at my anxiety-addled brain. Which is probably why the mad dash world of HBO’s Succession has won me over in a heartbeat.
Succession is about bad people. Every morally contemptible (yet oddly sympathetic) member of the Roy clan shares a singular goal: to claim the power wielded by their aging family patriarch for themselves. The patriarch himself adores this “game”—he wants his successor to inherit his empire not through mere bloodline, but by crushing his legacy and earning the title through their own maneuvers. They’re a fictional family based on the Murdochs, afforded nearly every luxury known to humankind and in possession of the power to destroy hundreds—if not thousands—of lives with the snap of a finger. I watch them eat caviar as I wipe Goldfish crumbs off my graphic tee of the day and worry that I forgot to empty the dishwasher. Clearly, our lifestyles are vastly similar. Though I’ll avoid spoilers, it goes without saying these one-percenters of the one-percenters have cracked a few eggs to stay on top. I’m lucky to make someone crack a smile with a joke.
But what is it the Roys want, exactly? To simply quench their thirst for power? Of course we can sympathize with these characters to some degree; that’s the magic of film and television, after all. Through stories, we can identify and sympathize with people who live lifestyles leagues beyond anything we have ever known. And the Roys are not like the average civilian, morally or fiscally. Part of what makes this show so successful is its uncanny ability to render privileged monsters relatable. Each of the Roy kids has undoubtedly been warped by the cruelty and neglect of their callous, near-omnipotent father. He regards their affection as little more than a weakness, emotionally and verbally abuses them constantly, and gaslights them with flickers of genuine connection to twist the knife even further. Yet time and time again, the choices of the characters and the way the show presents them affirm that what we are watching—the precarious negotiations, the anxiety-riddled breakdowns, the merciless abandonment of familial loyalty for legacy—is completely and utterly hilarious. There’s a constant sense of irony at play, one that hurls itself to the forefront with every exaggerated zoom into a character’s wide-eyed horror. And the irony is that, simply put, every character is making the conscious choice to play this stupid little game. They have all the money, all the influence, and all the toys they could ever need, regardless of the “title” dangled over their heads by their father. The Roys are the absolute definition of “success” in every way except the one that counts: happiness. We can’t help but laugh at their horrendous choices; they have so much, and yet so little of what makes life worthwhile.
It is this polarity—the conscious refusal of happiness in pursuit of something “more”—that illustrates the cost of ambition. And as weird as this may sound, I am so glad I live in a world where I can watch Succession and High School Musical:The Musical: The Series in tandem. For HSM:TM:TS (I will never get tired of this acronym) is—and I mean this—a spiritual sister to Succession. Ricky, Nini, and a host of other people you have no knowledge of whatsoever need to get over their shit and confess that they wanna belt pop songs at each other with decidedly less grace than Troy and Gabriella. But they don’t. Because they see other things standing in the way: the quest to be the lead, the quest to be seen as “cool,” the quest to live up to Troy and Gabriella in the first place (an impossible task, to be sure). In other words, they engage in a conscious refusal of what would make them happiest in pursuit of something more. Are the stakes lower? Sure. But the message is the same. And in both cases, you can only laugh at the decidedly human chaos running before your eyes.
And honestly? I love HSM:TM:TS. I love it because it’s so unabashedly silly. I love it because it loves its own corporate rendition of high school life and knows you think it’s ridiculous. And I love it even if it is hot garbage. It puts a big ol’ smile on my face. Isn’t that half the reason I want to work in this industry in the first place? I could dress up my own work with the prestige style Succession employs. Hopefully, it’d be just as funny. But as I continue my journey forward in the months to come, I’ll remember that the wannabe Troy within me is just as valid. It’s possible to have your head in the game, but your heart in the song. Who says they’re mutually exclusive?