Sen. Sherrod Brown Has Some Thoughts About ‘Succession’

6 minute read

On the evening of Jan. 3, Connie Schultz, the Pulitzer-winning syndicated columnist and author, was trying to watch HBO’s Succession, but she kept having to pause it because something reminded her husband of his work. “I am watching #Succession with the chairman of the Senate banking committee,” Schultz informed her quarter-million Twitter followers, “and holy cannoli the ongoing commentary.”

Neither Schultz nor the husband in question, Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, can recall exactly which episode moved her to compose the tweet, which has now been liked nearly 24,000 times. Both believe it was sometime in Season 2—quite possibly one of the episodes in which a curly-haired liberal senator hauls members of the Roy family in front of a Senate committee, about which Brown, a curly-haired liberal, recalls having a lot to say. TIME caught up with Brown this week for a Zoom interview about his take on the show and its policy implications. (Warning: this piece is chock-full of spoilers.)

The show centers on the business dealings of the wealthy Roy family and their fictional New York City-based company, Waystar Royco. Washington enters the picture at the end of Season 2, when Cousin Greg, played by Nicholas Braun, struggles to explain to lawmakers his actions covering up rampant misconduct on the company’s cruise lines. But after that, the senators and committee are never seen again. Brown believes an actual Senate hearing would have produced more results. Greg “would have been the one from that congressional hearing that they would not have let go,” Brown says. “Even pro-corporate Republican senators, who always let corporate interests dictate their actions—their legislative actions and other political actions—he would not have gotten away with that. So the part that I knew best, the congressional hearing, was not as true to life as perhaps it could have been.”

But Brown generally believes the show to be pretty realistic, particularly its depiction of rich people behaving badly and never seeming to face any consequences. “No matter what they do, no matter what mistake that would affect the rest of us might happen, they never pay a price for it, and no rules apply to them,” he says. “And it’s pretty disheartening when you think about people like that, that have so much influence on our economy and on our government. What’s distressing about it is the power that people like that have where I work, and on Wall Street, and that the voters continue to allow those kinds of people to have that kind of power in their own lives.”

Despite the superficial resemblance, Brown, like most watchers, thinks Sen. Gil Eavis, played by Eric Bogosian, is more likely based on Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I liked how he took on the Roy family,” Brown says of Eavis, “but he didn’t seem as genuine doing it as my colleague Bernie is, frankly.”

Brown and Schultz watch TV in their family room in Cleveland, where they have matching leather recliners (“so dorky,” she says), but during Succession she likes to sit on a couch to the side instead so she can see his face. Brown makes the popcorn, which he likes with butter and Schultz likes to top with yeast. Their two rescue dogs, Franklin and Walter, wander in and out of the room. Amid a challenging few years in the Senate, “I’m always trying to come up with distractions for him,” she says. But his mind is rarely far from his job. “So often he’ll say, ‘Stop for a second,’ because he has to tell me who it reminds him of, or ‘I forgot to tell you this thing that happened this week in committee hearings.’”

The episodes that stand out to Brown are the ones where working people become victims of the Roys’ heartless greed: the Season 1 finale, in which drug-addicted wastrel son Kendall Roy abandons a waiter to drown; the Season 2 finale, in which a company report categorizes the deaths of lowly cruise-line workers as “No Real Person Involved.” “The ‘No Real Person Involved’ was almost anybody who was powerless, particularly people that didn’t look like them,” Brown says. “The people who serve them every day, the people that work at their Disney kind of park, the people who staff their cruises, are thrown, literally thrown into the ocean, and they didn’t think twice about it. These are just not real people to them because they’re not rich, because they’re not powerful.”

Brown doesn’t believe all rich people are bad—after all, he points out, some of them are Democrats—but he advocates policies that would make them pay more in taxes, have less political influence and treat their workers more humanely. “We’ve seen the wealthiest people in this country get richer and richer and richer,” he says. “And we’ve seen stock prices go up, profits go up, executive compensation stratospheric, yet wages have remained flat. That’s the way the Roy family wants it. That’s the way the, I don’t mean to be partisan, but the 50 Republicans in the Senate want it. That’s the way that the people that have far too much influence in this country want it and the lobbyists that always hover around the Capitol want it. But it’s not what this country should have.”

Schultz drew a similar parallel. “About two episodes in, it suddenly occurred to me, ‘You know, honey, these are the Republican donors,’” Schultz recalls. “These are the people funding the people who are fighting you on everything in the Senate.”

If the show is so miserable, why watch it? Brown admits to a certain morbid fascination, and also he admires the acting—he’s partial to Brian Cox, who plays the patriarch Logan Roy, while Schultz is a fan of J. Smith-Cameron, who plays the mercenary executive Gerri Kellman. Schultz has a different explanation of the show’s appeal. “It’s not at all escapist,” she says. “But I remember what I used to say when my friends were surprised I liked The Sopranos: It’s all the revenge I can’t get in real life. I said, ‘If nothing else, honey, we can feel really good about our family compared to this.’” There may not be any justice, but at least on television, the regular folks get to watch the rich suffer instead of the other way around.

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