Excerpted From: Lenese C. Herbert, (Con)scripted: “Caucasian Rich Brain”, 73 DePaul Law Review 47 (Spring, 2024) (135 Footnotes) (Full Document)

LeneseCHerbertThey called them “brilliant.” Respecters of “the sharp edges” and “reliable bubbler[s] of memorable language.” Their writing, roundly regarded as “a bracing and refreshing font of quips and barbs and total twists of the heart,” was likened to the precision of an architect's plans. They crafted mesmerizing characters who wooed us, against our better judgment. They even stuck the landing regarding the most criticized aspect of every lauded television series, the finale, roundly regarded as “[pitch] perfect” and “whip smart.”

Their writing was credited with shifting the zeitgeist, thanks to their ability to aptly wedge playful bits of wordsmithing betwixt awkward silences and deadly serious prose. And though the show has concluded, its nearly two dozen veteran and venerated writers, story editors, and showrunner/creator, Jesse Armstrong, continue to be lauded for enriching twenty-first-century American culture with ribald quips and neologisms that filled gaps in the lexicon of corporate jargon and “C-Suite slang” we did not know we needed.

The premise of Succession was simple: congenitally unprepared adult children of an emotionally manipulative billionaire tycoon of a multimedia conglomerate clumsily jockey to take over their father's empire. The “prismatic series” has been described as “satire,” a “drama,” a “comedy,” and, of course, a “dramedy.” Some regarded the show as a “melodrama”; others deemed it “prestige drama.” One luxury lifestyle magazine even coined the term, “Helipad Drama.”

Genre notwithstanding, all agreed that Succession was a smashing success, in great part due to its writers. Succession scripts--four seasons worth of scriveners' brilliance and director's notes sold to the public. The scripts show--via inclusion of deleted scenes, alternative dialogue, and character directions--“how the cast transformed each scene from the page to the screen.”

The torrent of accolades may strike some as excessive. However, it is consistent with the quality of programming offered by HBO. “It's not TV, It's HBO,” is the channel's catchphrase, motto, mantra. Its reputation is undisputed; its programming is commonly understood to be superior, especially when compared to legacy network programming. Over the last twenty-five years, HBO has consistently reigned supreme during what has been characterized as the golden era of “prestige TV.” It is the home to original series and programming that, disproportionately, receive industry awards, critical acclaim, and viewer ratings. Such is the level of praise for the most acclaimed creators of outstanding television. It is rarefied air.

The acting corps that comprised Succession's cast of characters, too, was regarded as top tier talent, offering viewers weekly opportunities to speculate as to “the motivations and idiosyncrasies driving each character.” In fact, the series' characters, known to “contain multitudes,” were alternately and simultaneously vicious, vulnerable, venal, and vacuous. “Every choice they ma[d]e can be interpreted in different opposing or contradictory ways, each valid in its own right.” “Some of the most emotional moments from the show were improvised or the result of the actors taking liberty with the script[.]”

[. . .]

Though Lisa Arthur may have been a far cry from Gone With the Wind's Mammy or even the maids of The Help, Succession “clearly didn't know what to do with Sanaa Lathan and her talent.” The role of Lisa Arthur remains depressingly familiar, given her depressingly similar, singular-task-cum-identity: serving whiteness. It is as if all were content to rely upon the value that Lathan's racial identity would bring to the show and network's brand while evading “impolite” race-based discourse and the powerful impact race can have on narrative and narrative strategy. In such a “racially articulated and predicated world,” actors and audiences deserve so much more.

“Caucasian Rich Brain” is courtesy of a Succession character, talk show host Sophie Iwobi (Ziwe Fumudoh). Sophie defines the ailment as “[w]hat happens [when] genetically inherited wealth and whiteness cause neural pathways in the brain to constrict and make the patient believe he's woke when he's just a total [expletive] jackass.” Succession: The Disruption (HBO television broadcast Oct. 31, 2021) (Season Three, Episode Three); Ted Cohen & Georgia Pritchett, The Disruption, in Succession Season Three: The Complete Scripts 183-84 (Home Box Office, Inc. 2023). See also infra, note 111.

Visiting Professor of Law, Richardson School of Law, University of Hawaii, Professor of Law, Howard University School of Law.