Watch "Succession" to understand why media companies reward the worst people

Sean Spicer doesn't deserve a comeback. But those watching HBO's drama probably aren't surprised he's getting one

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 22, 2019 4:18PM (EDT)

Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer; Brian Cox and Matthew Macfadyen in "Succession" (AP/Evan Agostini/Peter Kramer/HBO)
Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer; Brian Cox and Matthew Macfadyen in "Succession" (AP/Evan Agostini/Peter Kramer/HBO)

Chalk it up to watching too much “Succession”: On Wednesday morning, when ABC announced that bumbling prevaricator Sean Spicer would be competing on this fall’s cycle of “Dancing with the Stars,” my immediate response to the news was, “Well, that train’s running on time.”

The former White House press secretary is a dishonest, inept sycophant who set the bar for the willful spreading of disinformation — a bar that newly-appointed Fox News contributor and expert misleading lady Sarah Huckabee Sanders went on to clear and raise a few notches, but still.

Spicer obfuscated the truth about Donald Trump’s policies and actions, starting with demanding the world not believe their eyes when it came to evaluating the sparse crowds at Trump’s inauguration. And he only got worse from there, never quite confessing to his role in helping push our democracy down its current perilous path even as he toured to promote his 2018 literary flop “The Briefing: Politics, The Press and The President.”

“To treat Spicer, and his reason for notoriety, as a harmless joke is to whitewash the harm of what he did,” New York Times critic James Poniewozik wrote yesterday. In Variety, Caroline Framke declares that “Spicer’s previous life as a professional liar should really disqualify him from public life.” They’re not wrong. May I also add that the camera does not love him?

Mass indignation is the correct reaction to this casting decision, to be clear.  In bringing Spicer on “Dancing with the Stars” to grin and waltz for the entertainment of millions, ABC is both boosting and taking advantage of the notoriety of a man who functions as a symbol for everything wrong with the world right now.

He’s the real-life version of Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), the dumb-bunny husband to Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook) on “Succession.”

To place that reference in context, Tom is a convenient accessory to Shiv and the rest of the Roys, the family behind the show’s media conglomerate Waystar Royco, built and currently run by its aging patriarch Logan Roy (a furiously brilliant Brian Cox).

In the first season Logan’s health spun into decline, spurring three of his children — Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin, who excels at playing the resident reprobate) and Shiv —into a mostly quiet but fiercely bitter battle to inherit the keys to the kingdom.

Logan's fourth child Connor (Alan Ruck), is his eldest son from his failed first marriage, and has mostly bugged off to a New Mexico estate where he spends his trust fund. Until his recently declared run for president on an anti-tax platform, Connor was content to happily, harmlessly space out on the fringes.

When one-time wunderkind Kendall makes a brash move to seize power and loses in a grandly humiliating fashion, Logan publicly and privately breaks his son and presumed protégé over his knee as a warning to his other children, none of whom he believes worthy to take the reins of Waystar.

With Kendall in his place, and Roman still demonstratively behaving like an entitled, irredeemable ass, Logan is turning his judgmental eye toward Shiv, the most liberal member of the family set on building a career in political power-brokering.

Shiv is intelligent, strategic and ambitious, wields her ruthlessness deliberately (which Roman doesn’t do) and keeps her vices to a minimum, indulging in moderation (unlike the substance-addled Kendall). She also shares the same weakness as her brothers, in that she’s vulnerable to her father’s acts of validation.

When Logan privately tells her that he wants her to be his successor, insisting she keep it a secret, Shiv hesitates to believe that her father is telling her the truth. Anyone who watches this show knows her initial instinct is the right one. They might also delight in the fact that she wanders into what is sure to be another of Logan’s psychological torture mazes nevertheless.

And this is where simple Tom Wambsgans of the Minnesota Wambsgans comes in. Tom is the second-least essential member of the Roy family, with his partner in playing-at business, cousin Gregory (Nicholas Braun), filling the role of the family tree’s vestigial twig. Together, Tom and Gregory are the series’ Dumb and Dumber,  lummoxes whose natural goofiness series creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong calls upon to balance out Roman’s and Shiv's cruel sniping.

By virtue of his marriage to Shiv, Tom is close enough to the center of power for Logan to hang whatever titles upon his son-in-law to make him seem important enough to draw fire from adversaries, while steering him clear of any legitimate responsibilities.

The Emmy-nominated “Succession” isn't a show one turns to in order to forget life’s troubles but rather to verify our cynical suspicions about how the world works. The Roys are among the most powerful and influential families in the world, whose wealth places them at a such a distance from the rot of our social and economic fabric that they don't give a crap that they're accelerating it. When the ground crumbles from beneath the feet of the working classes, they'll be fine. They have helicopters and mountain retreats to fall back to.

And in his world, Tom is the Roy family’s human shield, the hollow boob who allows them to get away with it cleanly by filling the much-welcome roles of jester and public punching bag.

At home Tom is little more than the unfaithful Shiv’s emotional support animal, and he seems to be fine with that. In season 2 Logan appoints Tom to head up Waystar Royco’s global news operations which, by all appearances, puts him in charge of ATN, the show’s stand-in for Fox News. Tom takes this as the latest sign that Logan is grooming his son-in-law to take the throne.

ATN’s actual power broker network head Cyd Peach (Jeannie Berlin) informs Tom that he’s the latest in a parade of empty suits who think they can tell her what to do. The fact that she’s still standing should tell him something. But Tom is too dumb and arrogant to notice silly clues like that.

He’s a cautionary tale of what happens to average yokels who fool themselves into thinking they’re ready to take up residence among the sharks. Tom has enough awareness to steer clear of the teeth and be content with the scraps of their kills. He’s a low-level parasite. But at least he’s an entertaining one.

Spicer belongs to a similar species of bloodsucker, only the infection left after his detachment has spread and strengthened under his successor’s cultivation. In recruiting him to don a spangly monkey suit and dance for prime time audiences, ABC is in the potency of amnesia as a side-effect of the disinformation fever he brought to us, a natural result of an age of “alternative facts.”

Should we express shock at this? For the sake of providing a record of how offensive this is to what we picture to be our collective moral center, absolutely. At the same time,  the network has promoted Spicer before. "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" was the only late-night series that invited Spicer on to plug his book. Kimmel also had him on right after he was booted from the White House, around the same ABC was rumored to have initially pitched woo in his direction.

Don't ever forget that “Dancing with the Stars” is the same show that  recruited I.Q.-challenged swimmer Ryan Lochte in the same year that he became a national disgrace for falsely reporting a crime during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It  invited former Texas GOP congressman Tom DeLay on while he was waiting to stand trial for campaign money laundering.

Others have cited the show’s past inclusion of former Texas governor and current Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in its contestant pool in the wake of his failed presidential run in 2016, and Tucker Carlson back in 2006, although that happened years before Carlson became the unofficial spokesmodel for white nationalism.

But ABC knew precisely what kind of person Paula Deen was when "Dancing with the Stars" made her a contestant in 2015. That came two years after the formerly popular culinary celebrity confessed to sprinkling her vocabulary with racist slurs, and admitting that she toyed with planning a wedding reception that would feature African-American servers dressed up like slaves. In the direct wake of these revelations, networks where Deen's programming aired cut ties with her.  She was persona non grata in popular culture pretty much everywhere — except ABC, eventually.

“Dancing with the Stars” provided Deen a forum for redemption and a comeback that did not take, so why wouldn’t it offer to launder a liar? Particularly as a contentious presidential election is starting to heat up — and to combat the record-setting lows its finale ratings have hit in recent seasons ?

The Spicer two-step is a disgusting move, but don’t fool yourself into believing that Disney is above such a thing. No powerful media company prioritizes virtue, particularly one that has recently devoured the carcass of another. Again, see: “Succession.”

The internal backstabbing and infighting among the younger Roys serves as the core dramatic catalyst of “Succession,” but as the media world barrels toward consolidation and monopolies, the second season is also providing a demonstration of what the effect of that can look like from the inside out.

Season 2's second episode, “Vaulter,” provides a preview into the ruthlessness paving the road toward these acquisitions, as Roman manipulates his vindictive father into gutting a plucky hipster news site viewed as ascendant, one Kendall brings into the fold prior to his failed coup in season 1.

The outcome is concurrently a brutal chastening for Logan’s former favorite son, now tasked to kill his adopted baby, and a fairly spot-on portrayal of the complete lack of humanity that informs behind-the-scenes business decisions. (On that note, do pay attention to the Vaulter headlines in the background throughout season 1 and in the new season’s opening episodes. Gems such as “5 Reasons Why Drinking Milk on the Toilet Is Kind of a Game-Changer” are among the many reasons the fictional news site will be missed.)

“Vaulter” is an on-ramp to the new season’s main narrative: Logan’s plan to make a run at ATN’s liberal competitor PGM, a rival news channel owned by the Pierce family.

PGM deals in trust, a devalued currency in a world discombobulated by lies and anxiety-provoking stupidity. Even so, the world’s wealthiest don’t stay on top by disregarding what’s happening on the ground. In an upcoming episode, PGM chief executive Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter) asks the Roys what they think news is, “public utility or entertainment option?

“You can actually do both: inform and engage,” answers Kendall, which is exactly what Rhea wants to hear, and what Kendall knows Logan would want a loyal scion and servant to say in an effort to court the competition. The viewer knows Kendall is lying because his soul is compromised thanks in part to his father’s cruelty. Maybe Rhea and the Pierces will acknowledge the truth in Kendall’s observation; evidence of Logan’s meanness and greed are on display in a product passing off divisive race-baiting as news and fact.

The Pierces cling to their public-facing pride in prioritizing integrity-driven news as opposed to following ATN’s lucrative model of conspiracy peddling and fearmongering. Behind the scenes in this industry and these matters, history hints that money always wins.

Multiple sources informed Variety that “Dancing with the Stars” contestants series make $125,000 for the rehearsal period and first two weeks on the air, with additional earnings added in for each round they survive. No matter what happens, Spicer is getting six figures based on his reputation for lying to Americans, because that's what his boss wanted him to do. It follows that Deen, Lochte and Perry made out similarly well.

So despite host Tom Bergeron’s tweet revealing his disagreement with the executive producer’s casting decision, saying he expressed the hope that this fall’s  “Dancing with the Stars” “would be a joyful respite from our exhausting political climate and free of any inevitably divisive bookings from ANY party affiliations,” he had to have known that wouldn’t happen.

Bergeron’s show has always served as the place for heels to attempt to scour their reputations clean, hoping that by smiling through an assortment of humiliations, America may allow them to stumble back into our good graces. Spicer is not worthy of public redemption through choreographed entertainment, and he’s about as likely to regain his seat in the spotlight as bumbling Tom Wambsgans is to be crowned king on “Succession.”

The difference is that Tom is never fully aware of the harm in which he’s participating or has a clue of how worthless he really is. His tragic lack of awareness is laughable, and the audience is supposed to revel in his buffoonery. He’s one of the best things about “Succession” because he represents craven men like Spicer,  people who embody the worst in us.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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