Like a lot of people, I caught up on Succession late. (I do love in this current media environment that a show that just wrapped up its first season five days ago is now usually considered “old news.”) But this is a show that caught on late. When I bring it up, most people are still somewhere in the middle of the season desperately trying to finish. Talking about Succession still feels like walking on pins and needles when discussing spoilers because so many people are still binging the show. It’s strangely more popular now than it was a few weeks ago when it was actually airing. (Yes, delayed popularity of a television show often happens, but usually it’s maybe a year later, not a week later.)
So, I went through all ten episodes in about a week, and there was something that kept nagging me in the back of my head about a specific character. Something … familiar.
Kieran Culkin plays Roman Roy, a kind of weasel of a dude who openly admits that he’s kind of dumb and calls people things like “beta cuck.” There is no Earthly reason why this character should be at all interesting or, even crazier, somewhat likable. Culkin plays Roman with a grin and a whole lot of panache. And Culkin’s boyish charms serve him well here. He can strut around our screens, have these terrible opinions, and yet we kind of want to see more of him. Then it hit me: Roman Roy is the Alex P. Keaton for 2018.
For those who don’t remember it, Family Ties ran from 1982 until 1989. When it premiered, Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton was a secondary character. Watching first season episodes, it’s kind of crazy how much of the plot centered on Alex’s ex-hippie parents, Steven and Elise Keaton (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter). Alex – a no-bones-about-it Republican and huge fan of Richard Nixon – was supposed to be a foil for his parents. In the early episodes, he’s basically a miniature William F. Buckley who just shows up to say something shocking. But then a couple of crazy things happened: (a) the producers didn’t realize they had cast one of the most charismatic young actors of the decade as Alex P. Keaton and (b) Ronald Reagan’s popularity began to soar – which somehow made Alex P. Keaton not just the star of the show (there were always rumors back then that Baxter wasn’t pleased with her role becoming secondary to Alex), but also an enduring pop culture fixture of that entire decade.
What’s interesting is that Roman Roy and Alex P. Keaton aren’t the same characters at all, but they both represent a deceivingly charming introduction to conservative politics at the time. Alex is incredibly smart, well-educated, and wants people to know how well educated he is. He doesn’t seem to care that much about social issues until it’s something that affects him personally in some way. His politics seem to come mostly from an economic standpoint. Now, it’s easy to poke holes in Alex’s point of view and philosophy – he had a framed photo of Richard Nixon that he would sometimes kiss – but he at least he had one. And Alex was successful. He didn’t care much about the prosperity of others (except for the times he did because he had to show some compassion), but he did succeed without billionaire parents. (Even though he never quite understood that the reason he was so well educated was because of his ex-hippie middle class parents that he loved to mock so much.)
Roman Roy is what happens when Alex P. Keaton is reimagined today. He’s opinionated, but readily admits he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. In 2018, there seems to be a point of pride on the right about how uneducated they are and Roman certainly fits that mold (at one point he’s told he couldn’t get a job at a hamburger stand if it weren’t for his father’s fortune). He’s brash. He gets angry with how “politically correct” everyone has become. And, again, throws around the term “beta cuck,” which has become a favorite phrase of the alt-right. Roman doesn’t have a definable point of view and certainly doesn’t have any sort of educated philosophy. He’s just basically an angry white male on a message board somewhere, only his father controls a media empire so people have to listen to what Roman has to say.
When scholars someday look back on how television portrayed conservative characters, Alex P. Keaton summed up the mid-1980s and Roman Roy completely defines 2018.
And, most importantly, Alex doesn’t work without the charms of Michael J. Fox. Here’s a character who could tell us how great of a president Richard Nixon was just eight years after Watergate and could somehow get away with it without being reviled. But the thing is, Alex had some bad opinions, but he seemed like a nice enough guy. Today he’d be called a “never-Trumper.”
So, in a way, it’s almost more remarkable what Kieran Culkin is pulling off. Roman Roy is awful. Yet Culkin plays him with such a mischievous bravado, that he’s a delight to watch and we wind up caring about this guy, which is horrifying. And I don’t think Roman Roy will become as popular as Alex P. Keaton was 30 years ago, TV doesn’t really work the same way it used to anyway (also: could you imagine Culkin as Roman on the cover of Tiger Beat?), but there’s something dangerous about the way Culkin plays Roman. And that’s a big reason I can’t stop watching Succession.
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