A few weeks ago, at the behest of a friend with good taste (and with the promise of a Ziwe cameo), I finally gave in and started watching Succession. Up until this point, I had actively resisted watching. There was nothing about the premise of yet another wealthy white family who—*plot twist*—happened to work together that initially drew me in. But after weeks of watching a four (yes, FOUR) part Real Housewives of Beverly Hills reunion, I was craving something a little more substantive, so I decided to give the series a try. Now, weeks later, I find myself so deeply invested in the Roy family drama that I’ve preemptively crafted hate tweets for when the next power-hungry cousin takes advantage of sweet, gullible Greg. What is it exactly about shows like these—satirical shows about toxic work environments—that keep us coming back for more?
I realized too late that the show has reeled me in by using my own personal traumas against me. Any show about work—Succession, The Office, Silicon Valley, Nip/Tuck—exposes a familiar yet sadistic fondness for the discomfort we associate with workplace dynamics. Despite hating the experience of working with people we find bizarre, boring, or objectively deplorable, we get a kick out of watching others go through those same things. And it’s not a coincidence that the stories we find the most entertaining are those rife with the issues that our biggest social movements (i.e Me Too, Black Lives Matter) have been trying to bring to the forefront for years. Perhaps, on some level, our enjoyment is actually just a means of self-soothing. The familiarity of watching our daily grievances play out in front of us makes us feel seen and heard and ‘normal’. As I’ve been watching Succession and desperately searching for a character I can holistically root for, I can’t help but think about how problematic it is that these same character tropes are, and always have been, so damn relatable to us all.
Take Mad Men, for example. We all love Don Draper and his undeniable dreaminess, and it was clear that, for the most part, he was the least problematic of the Sterling Cooper bunch. But if we actually think about the dynamics of that workplace (and accept the fact that it was set in the 60’s), Mr. Draper might be the worst boss on record. He stole his employee’s ideas, he had his employees conceal his countless extramarital affairs, he hid his Black secretary out of sight so clients wouldn’t see her, and—my personal favourite—he coerced the female office manager to sleep with a potential client in exchange for their business. All of this done with an Old Fashioned in hand. Don Draper, and the office of Mad Men in general, are yet another example of the terrible bosses and workplaces that have been binge-worthy since the very first televisions took over our living rooms in the 1950s. What does it say about us when these are the stories that make us feel seen and heard?
The familiarity of watching our daily grievances play out in front of us makes us feel seen and heard and ‘normal’.
The harsh reality is that we stan a toxic workplace show because so many workplaces are indeed toxic. And though working remotely has helped some of us avoid the microaggressions we’ve grown so accustomed to, in the face of Me Too and BLM, some of the old school styles of toxicity have been replaced with virtue-signalling and corporate wokeness (think Issa Dee’s non-profit job at We Got Y’all in Insecure), which are often just as traumatic as their predecessors. But no matter which type of workplace toxicity is most present in your life at the moment, these shows offer the escapism we crave from television. In your real life, you dread the performance review with the supervisor who puts a hand on your thigh before denying you your raise, or having to swat away the mail lady’s hand when she tries to touch your hair (again). But after work, you love to watch characters suffer or triumph through those moments because they’re often able to respond in the way we wish we always could. And in the case of Succession, the trauma keeps on giving, because the combination of the dysfunctional family and a corporate office would easily send any of us to therapy.
Now that I, too, am addicted to Succession, I have no choice but to self-reflect between binge-watching sessions. While we wrestle with the fact that we relate all too well to storylines that make us cringe, the next step might be acknowledging that the prevalence of shows like these is a sign for us to demand change in real life.
And with that, let's look beyond the Roy family into a power ranking of the the most toxic workplaces seen on TV.
10. Silicon Valley
Startup culture at its finest, Silicon Valley shows the hilarious chaos that ensues when incredibly smart tech people are incredibly incompetent business people. Not a single employee at any company characterized on the show is content at their job, and yet they keep reinventing themselves for the sake of money, power and respect.
9. Arrested Development
Consider Arrested Development as Succession’s quirky cousin. Like Succession, Arrested Development is about a wealthy family with a business in turmoil, but unlike Succession, you can root for one son, Michael Bluth, to keep it all together. That said, we still haven’t let him off the hook for the banana stand fiasco.
Though we can never seem to get enough of a down on his luck boy genius who beats the system, the witty banter between Mike Ross and Harvey Specter disguised an employee-employer relationship so plagued with blackmailing and sabotage, it validated why lawyers get a bad rap.
7. 30 Rock
Liz Lemon liked to think she was the sane boss amongst the eccentric creatives, but if 30 Rock taught us anything, it’s that most people in positions of power are the opposite of self-aware. Even worse (though more entertaining for us), that lack of self awareness spilled over into the writing room of the SNL spoof ‘The Girlie Show’, the title of which gives a pretty good hint about how politically incorrect the workplace often became.
6. The Office
Diversity Day, which is only the second episode of the entire series, might be the most relatable but cringe-worthy 30 mins to ever air on television. Michael Scott gave us lines so classic that you almost wish you had a boss like him (but you don’t). “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”
Think of Empire as the Black precursor to Succession, except replace Succession’s media conglomerate with a hip hop one, and set every conflict and storyline to music. Cookie Lyon made us realize the questionable lengths we’ll go to when we mix family with business.
Issa Rae’s character has moved on from the non-profit We Got Y’all, but viewers from her web series and seasons 1-3 will remember every cringeworthy ‘white savior complex’ moment with Issa’s boss Joanne. Let’s also never forget the company’s logo, which features white hand literally holding Black children in its palm.
If you don’t have them already, watching Scandal will give you trust issues. Not one person at her “firm” can be trusted in the long run, and that includes Olivia Pope. It’s worth noting that Pope was based on a real person, D.C fixer Judy Smith, who has probably signed more NDAs about toxic bosses and colleagues than the world will ever know.
A staple in the workplace genre, medical shows the ups and downs of the people we literally trust with our lives. Nip/Tuck, however, made you second guess those friendly faces in scrubs (if you didn’t already), with torrid affairs, malpractice and God complexes impacting every aspect of their plastic surgery business.
1. Mad Men
Despite all the ways the staff at Sterling Cooper make us question how they remain employed (let’s not forget when Lois ran over Guy’s foot with a lawnmower while drunkenly riding it in the office) we never stop rooting for Peggy and Don to come out on top. Though we may not love the paths they choose to get there.