With news of Elon Musk halfway between buying Twitter and facing a one billion dollar pullout charge for changing his mind, corporate takeovers have defined our cultural, financial, and political discourse. Look no further than the news every day to find big companies that keep getting bigger, tech billionaires that keep piling on billions, and entertainment conglomerates that continue to acquire invaluable IP.
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It’s not exactly a new trend; film and television since the wealth-obsessed 80s have been creating stories that follow offices, businessmen, and corporate entities to say larger things about our society. A merger or takeover within a narrative has the power to shake things up, put a series on a new trajectory, and make its characters re-strategize while a new culture and more characters are introduced seemingly from a different world.
Wall Street (1987)
The original standard. Oliver Stone’s white-collar classic Wall Street features a dynamite screenplay, a bullet clipping pace, the spirit of the 80s yuppie, and Michael Douglas’ signature slick motor-mouthed performance as Gordon Gekko. Gekko, a corporate raider who uses insider training to strip companies of their assets embodies a void of ethics, greed as a religion, and sexiness often all at the same time.
While Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), the audience’s avatar who sets the film’s events in motion after being taken under the mentorship of Gekko, spends the film reaping the benefits of Gekko’s philosophy, the film’s turning point comes with a takeover that hits close to home. Using Bud’s information, Gekko buys an airplane manufacturing company that Bud’s father works for, resulting in his hospitalization after a heart attack. It’s the takeover that leads to the conclusion of one of the iconic takeover movies and a beacon of hope within a practice that in reality would not disappear for subsequent decades. Stream It On HBO MAX.
Mad Men (2007-2015)
There are few corporate-set television dramas as decorated as Mad Men. During its first four seasons, the series picked up a consecutive Best Drama Series Emmy every year and marked the beginning of a new era of prestige TV. Apart from providing perspective on everything from 20th Century American history to gender politics, at its core, the series acted as a faithful parallel to American business ideals.
The third season, marked by the presence of Sterling Cooper’s London office in Putnam, Powell, and Lowe, sees the writing on the wall in the form of a buyout from McCann and Ericson via news from the particularly slippery Conrad Hilton (Chelcie Ross). Failing to buy the company between Draper (Jon Hamm), Cooper (Robert Morse), and Sterling (John Slattery), the trio uses Lane Pryce’s (Jared Harris) authority to be released via termination, sever their contracts, and start their own advertising agency. The move marked a new era of Mad Men reflecting one of the major ideals of the late 60s: independence. Stream It On AMC+.
The Office (2005-2013)
With a continued revitalization to new generations and longtime fans through its popularity on streaming services, The Office has become an integral part of our cultural DNA. Its scenarios and humor have entered the lexicon and the series has provided an apt composite of workplace life, challenges, and companionship. Season 6’s turning point of Florida printer company Sabre buying out Dunder Mifflin gave the Scranton paper business a life preserve that rescued it from insolvency.
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The merger and eventually the exit of Sabre represented by Jo Bennett, the no-nonsense stubborn CEO played by Kathy Bates symbolizes how a culture clash between two companies can be a result of a lackluster merger. Sabre lacks culture while Dunder Mifflin’s workplace culture is strong. Further, Sabre’s prioritization of sales staff over administrative causes internal issues. The takeover provides the show with the new ground to cover its unique politics from whistleblowers to intimidation and another buyout from CFO David Wallace (Andy Buckley) after bad press from malfunctioning printers (ahem, exploding) caused Bennett to liquidate the company. Stream It On Peacock.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The third entry in the instant classic trilogy of Christopher Nolan Batman films, The Dark Knight Rises was conceived and released following one of the worst financial crises in the last century with financial downturn and chaos running deeply in the film’s throughline. Wayne Enterprises is running in the red, corporate rivals become involved in schemes, and a cat burglar is less a villain than she is an adversary.
Before breaking Batman’s back like a twig on Gotham’s Wall Street (one of the series’ most memorable moments), Bane’s infiltration of the Stock Exchange using Wayne’s coveted fingerprints riddles the market and leaves Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) bankrupt. Bane’s (Tom Hardy) corporate takeover doesn’t so much limit himself to control of the company as it does the entire city, destroying the bridges that would provide an exit from the city. Rarely are takeovers this hostile even in real life and Bane’s plan is part of a larger terrorist plot, but the move aligns the action of the film with Gotham’s vulnerable economy and the implications of the crime world.
In Good Company (2004)
Imagine your company being sold by an international corporation, its culture being transformed seemingly overnight, you’ve been demoted at the age of 51, and your close colleagues are laid off as part of the merger. Now imagine your new boss, a 26-year-old business school graduate, dating your daughter.
In Good Company presents a fairly horrendous situation for Dan Foreman (in a great performance from Dennis Quaid) who like all victims of the M&A, loses control of nearly all aspects of his professional and private life. Though in the eye of the takeover storm, the film balances the uneasy dynamic between its characters quite impressively. Dan Foreman forms an awkward friendship with his new boss Carter (Topher Grace) and eventually punches him in the face for dating his daughter (ScarlettJohansson), but through the writing of American Pie helmers Paul and Chris Weitz, none of this ever feels forced. Corporate language and human resource practices are used as winking inside jokes, while the volatility of a corporate buyout provides dramatic tension in the highly underrated film. Stream It On STARZ.
There was always a potential takeover in play for Succession. Between Kendall’s (Jeremy Strong) failed vote of no confidence, his joining with Sandy (Larry Pine) and Stewy (Arian Moayed) for the wedding bear hug, and a Season 2 marred by the swaying of shareholder votes amid public scandal, the show had been teasing a war between Logan (Brian Cox) and his longtime rival Sandy Furness. It’s why the finale of Lucas Madsen’s (Alexander Skarsgard) acquisition of Waystar Royco abound the chianti-soaked hills of Italy provided not just an unpredictable twist but a massive gut punch.
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The GoJo play represents a few things for the show. Logan, still the most powerful character on the Succession, has very little confidence in his children to take over his legacy despite keeping them close for strategic use. It represents the biggest shakeup for the show, ultimately removing the Roy children from their power and access and pitting Logan as the primary antagonist for future seasons. More than anything, it is the move that unites Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Kendall in a Watchmen-esque way after three seasons of rivalry. Stream It On HBO MAX.
Pretty Woman (1990)
In the real world, corporate raiders are not this nice. Pretty Woman was a force in the early 90s, the classic Cinderella story plopped into a Hollywood Boulevard setting. Richard Gere’s Edward is compassionate and gentlemanly, he listens, and he ultimately decides against the course that will make him even richer. It’s a wonder how he attained the ruthless position he has by the opening of the film, a dismantler of struggling companies who rolls around Los Angeles in a Lotus.
His repulsively insensitive lawyer played by a can’t-unsee-George Jason Alexander appears to be closer to the real thing. If anything Edward’s decision not to destroy the shipbuilding company that brought him to the city shows character growth and his opting to save it mirrors his desire to rescue Vivian (Julia Roberts) from life on the streets. It’s a fairytale-like decision in a film that parallels a fairy tale and one of the few times in film that a corporate takeover is halted due to the transformation of its architect. Stream It On Hulu.
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