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Succession family business tv drama HBO

Family business

What fictional family dramas can teach us about real life

Published 1 February 2023 in Family business • 5 min read

Family businesses seem to be made for the movies and television. They have everything: success, power and riches, as well as dysfunction and drama. Most are a caricature of reality, but nonetheless some useful themes emerge. Kimberly Eddleston, a professor who specializes in family business and teaches a course entitled Examining Family Business Through Film, shares some key takeaways.


1. Succession 

This Emmy award–winning TV series is a classic for talking about the succession issue, of course. Often, we talk in family business circles about successors feeling entitled to the CEO position, but we also see in the first episode that the founder feels entitled to stay on. Logan Roy, the lead character, is 80 years old, and he’s thinking, “I can do what I want since I built this business.” Furthermore, he uses his power and wealth to manipulate his children. In my teaching, I do an exercise after watching the episode where Logan appears to be on his deathbed. Students are asked to portray several key family members in the show and to create speeches to Logan. We then discuss them and how Logan would likely react. 

2. The Godfather

The classic Mafia movie starring Marlon Brando contains so much that’s relevant to succession too, particularly in relation to the pernicious effects of primogeniture. Sonny Corleone takes over from his father as the eldest child, but given what happens (he’s killed and the youngest son, Michael, reluctantly assumes the role) you are left with good material for discussing the historical assumption that it’s always the first-born son who should take over. It’s always fun talking about what would have happened if Sonny had become the successor. He was hot-headed and impulsive, and wanted to take the business in directions that went against the family’s values. We also talk about gender roles in the film, and the “Fredo Effect” – a term used to describe the middle son who was an impediment to the business. My students also learn much about non-family members through the character of Tom Hagen, the lawyer. They easily identify what he brings to the business and how critical he is to its success.  

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3. Six Feet Under 

What happens when a family is faced with an unplanned succession, when a parent suddenly dies, and no-one knows the succession plan until the reading of the will? A sudden death in a family business can really take its toll: 70% of family businesses are sold or liquidated after a sudden death. It’s obviously traumatic to the surviving family members who are grieving while also being forced to take over and lead the business. To teach this, I use an episode of Six Feet Under, the television drama series about a funeral home business, in which a father gets hit by a bus. It’s an event that’s outside the natural order of a family’s life cycle. The episode shows the importance of family dynamics to the future of a family business: healthy family, healthy business. 

4. Bob’s Burgers 

This one, an animated American sitcom, allows for an interesting examination of the formalization and clarity of roles. It centers on the Belcher family, who run a burger joint in a seaside community. In an episode I use in my teaching, the mom leaves the business because she feels under-appreciated. She feels she can help the family meet its financial needs by taking a job at a grocery store. While she’s away, the husband finally realizes the value of everything she brought to the business. It shows how family members are often undervalued, and how the family takes for granted the family aspect of the business. It’s a fun episode for having a good discussion about how we can better communicate our appreciation of family members and the need for job descriptions and formalization to codify what people do. 

Empire tvEmpire is a musical drama centering on a fictional music and entertainment company, and the drama among the members of the founders' family as they fight for control of it.

5. Empire 

Managing crisis is another big topic for family businesses. In Empire, a TV drama series that revolves around a family fighting for control of an entertainment business in New York, I wanted to see how my students would deal with a crisis. There’s an episode where everything comes to a head and there are four crises the business and the family have to deal with all at once. Some are family related (the family discovers an illegitimate son at one point and it becomes public) and some are business related (a business scandal involving the selling of customer data). Different teams in my class are assigned to the different crises and have to come up with a press release as if they were the family.  

6. Dynasty 

I use the new incarnation of the classic soap opera Dynasty to deal with the whole innovation versus tradition dilemma that you sometimes get with family businesses, some of which often expose generational divides. I illustrate this by focusing on how the next generation wants to branch out from oil and gas and is pushing environmental issues — cleaner fuel, renewable energy — and social issues. They see things differently from the older generation but don’t have the decision-making authority to easily change things. 

Descendants tvThe Descendants is a 2011 comedy-drama film tracing the journey of attorney and land baron Matt King, who struggles with unexpected occurrences in his monotonous life.

7. The Descendants 

Upholding a family legacy – something bigger than you as an individual – can be very important. In the film The Descendants, George Clooney plays a character who is the sole trustee in protective charge of a vast tract of pristine land in Hawaii. His family are Hawaiian royalty. He ends up giving a speech to his cousins where he changes his mind about selling the land. I have my students write the speech. What would he say to get his cousins to agree with his decision not to sell out? It has a really strong family message, but the most important one is legacy and the importance of your community in business decisions. 


Kimberly A. Eddleton

Kimberly A. Eddleston

Professor of Entrepreneurship at Northeastern University

Kimberly Eddleston is the Schulze Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship at Northeastern University, based in Boston. She specializes in family business and teaches a course entitled Examining Family Business Through Film.  


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