Yellowstone, Righteous Gemstones signal a new obsession with TV empires

A proud patriarch who rules a vast empire of power and influence faces old age and must decide who will take his place. None of his children seem to be up to the task, spoiled and disfigured by their family’s excessive wealth. Petty grievances and megalomania mix with family responsibilities and toxic stories to doom all involved.

Pop quiz: what series does this premise describe?

  1. yellowstone
  2. righteous gems
  3. succession
  4. Promised land

Trick question: The answer is “all of the above”. Something special about fading empires is brewing in the zeitgeist of American television right now and has been for quite some time. One can trace this lineage back to the derision of the 1% during the Bush era. retarded development or even the soapy exploits of old series like Dallas as well as Dynasty. But today’s TV shows about broken families seem solid, but at the same time very specific. Families that wield money and power with impunity are all too common in the real world, and their reflections in our fiction run up against the inevitable notion that the power to influence our world is in the hands of too many people with the same last name.

There are many different faces in power and as many different ways of corrupting it as there are people who hoard it on TV as there are in reality. The family unit, as a substitute for a larger social structure, gives writers the opportunity to personify and depict vast systemic problems under the guise of interpersonal struggle. The way many shows cover this fact, and the way they see these dynastic families crumbling or somehow surviving against the odds, shows how we can look at the seemingly inevitable and long awaited decline of our country. Clockwise from top: Families from the Righteous Gems, Promised Land, Yellowstone, and Legacy stare.

yellowstone follows the hugely successful Dutton family ranchers, led by Kevin Costner’s John Dutton, a “talk low and hold a big stick” type who runs a family ranch that is larger than some European countries. righteous gems follows the Gemstone family, led by extremely wealthy televangelist and John Goodman patriarch Eli Gemstone, while his self-sanctified adult children (although when one of your children is played by Danny McBride, it’s hard to imagine there ever was a chance for a stable personality) to live in excess of anger, pride, most of the other seven deadly sins.

For the Roy family succession, power is even more intangible and manifests itself in the media themselves. Waystar-Royco Corporation, owned by the Roy family, has a hand in everything from children’s entertainment to streaming services, video games, and news of the Murdoch and Koch brothers-esque right-wing multimedia monster. Finally, the most recent series of this study, Promised landwho takes the trouble to imagine an empire that is not ruled by ordinary white people. It focuses on Mexican-American Joe Sandoval’s Heritage House vineyard and his children’s questionable wishes for his future, complicated by the fact that Sandoval himself, as we learn in the pilot, is an undocumented worker living under an assumed name. Here are four families, four empires, and four permutations on the same root question: what to do—and who bears the blame—when a family business is on the verge of collapse.

The structure of these shows of disgruntled children revolving around a crumbling father figure is hardly a unique or original way of shaping a story on its own. Shakespeare King Lear laid the pattern for the August Patriarch dealing with his quarreling children and his own disastrous retirement in 1606, and the play itself was an adaptation of an old English legend dating back to the twelfth century. Fathers have been fumbling with the bag in dramatic fashion for centuries, but there’s something compelling about how, while surviving what appears to be the end of an American empire and a slow car crash of national dysfunction, so many TV shows have been so concerned about a house going down.

Perhaps this rise of fading show empires is a natural continuation of the “golden age of television” and the rise of the anti-hero protagonist. Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Walter White and Don Draper were one-man empires that brought their personal and professional lives too close together to be sustainable despite the protagonist’s best attempts to separate their realms. The guilt of these protagonists has always been ultimately within themselves, and we, the viewers, have been there to watch the outside world mirror their inner destruction. Mythical Great Person (because it’s usually a human, though let’s save some love for Nurse Jackie) seeks to conquer every aspect of his life, and we see him succeed and fail. But the lonely man had his day. One self-destructive morally gray protagonist is no longer enough. You know what’s better than Walter White? An entire Walter White family, raised by another Walter White, all with varying levels of competence and repressed resentment. Who each show chooses as, for lack of a better term, “hero” tells us a lot about each show’s central beliefs. For succession as well as righteous gems, the focus is on children and how they meet or fail to meet the expectations set for them, and how they squander the vast opportunities afforded to them by their privileged position. IN yellowstone as well as the Promised land, the structure is inverted: the patriarch is the only one who can straighten the ship, and even though he can sometimes be thick-headed and stubborn, in the end the Father must know best to maintain the status quo and retain the protagonist’s control over the narrative. In all four of these shows, the older generation has passed on some degree of unacceptable destruction to the current generation. But in the last two cases, only the father can correct the situation.

But it is not always known for sure whether the father really knows best. Gems as well as succession disagree; from their point of view, the past generation passed on suffering to the present, and the endless echo chamber of poisonous family resentment does not promise a happy resolution, especially without any participation of the fathers.

These series often fit the American idea of ​​the nuclear family, the mythical notion of a perfectly close-knit family with 2.5 children, a picket fence, and a loyal dog. The nuclear family is completely self-sufficient and does not need the support of a larger community – the true American way is for each family to be under complete control.

In these waning empires, we see the isolation and illusion of a nuclear family unit crumbling: no matter their wealth, status, power, or the literal land they claim as theirs, these families cannot shut themselves off from the rest of the world. . Children marry and bring spouses with extraneous interests, both benevolent and malevolent. Characters fall in love and obsess with each other as they try to shrink the world down to their family members – see Roman Roy’s obsession with his siblings’ sex lives and Beth Dutton’s similar obsession with insulting her brother Jamie’s masculinity and sexuality.

The desire of these families for complete control – over their heritage in all four families, over their literal products in Promised land as well as righteous gems, and what will happen to the surnames that gave so much to these characters. They would like to work in a vacuum, in a perpetual motion machine where their money alone earns them enough money to maintain a luxurious lifestyle, but the harshness of the world (and the narrative structure of episodic television) means that their sense of prosperity will be threatened by others who want what these characters have but don’t exactly deserve. Each of these empires exemplifies some aspect of American excess. Roy’s total conservative demise is the most obvious, but the Gemstones’ faith-to-dollar conversion empire is as treacherous (and usually conservative) as the Waystar-Royco media machine. Dutton Ranch signifies America’s bloody dominance of land occupied by the indigenous peoples (who are often depicted on the show as either antagonists opposed to the Dutton clan or outright villains) and its vehement refusal to return that land to its original stewards or even acknowledge the centuries of cruelty and inhumanity that have come. with the doctrine of manifest fate.

Of these four shows, only Promised land makes any attempt to flip the usual social pyramid a bit and show a marginalized identity that has managed to accomplish the impossible: the American miracle of Joe Sandoval pulling himself up by his shoelaces. However, success has come at the price of participating in the same system of capital that has created every other intractable and tyrannical patriarch, more than you or I are forced to cooperate in the endless parade of small-scale inhumanity of modern society. Sandoval’s business practices are no better than those of Logan Roy or Josh Dutton, both of whom instill a cult-like devotion to their subordinates (work ranchers in yellowstone literally branded like the cattle they manage, they are so entangled in their status as subservient workers). The price of excellence in capitalism is higher than mere participation – in order to win, you must put more skin into the game than your own, and profit from the blood, sweat, and skin of others.

Viewers are clearly drawn to these stories of family discord. succession was a darling of critics and audiences alike, and nearly every cast member received heaps of praise. righteous gems in the second season, he continued the fascinating line between satirical comedy and crime drama. yellowstone could be the biggest hit of them all, with a spin-off 1883 launching the untold Paramount Plus Subscriptions (like my father, who never volunteered to run Netflix), and two other spin-offs are reportedly in development to show Dutton’s empire in different time periods and locations. It would not be an empire without many conquered territories.

The pop culture obsession with sunset days and the internal collapse of empires of various forms seems too simple to relate to modern events and the current state of the world, but it deserves attention anyway. In an empire in decline, we watch stories in which this systemic failure seems to be the exploits of a few spoiled children, either corrupted by their fathers or for whom a father is their only hope. And as American empires (whether political, cultural, financial, etc.) crumble like so many others, will that collapse be a tragedy or a farce?

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