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I Have Thoughts About Succession

Updated: May 29, 2023

I'm a late arrival to Succession. I started streaming from Season 1 a couple of weeks after Season 4 started but I’m now all caught up and breathlessly awaiting the finale along with everyone else, apparently.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Succession. That the acting is top-drawer goes without saying; Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin and Matthew Macfadyen all deliver my favorite shattering performances. The show is beautiful to look at, all neutral tones and #stealthwealth fashion and just enough artful shaky cam. The score by Nicholas Britell is regal and off kilter, a masterclass in variations on a theme, literally underscoring the show's high production values. The lifestyle porn of private jets, Mediterranean yachts, sleek offices and Tuscan weddings beckons with understated affluent allure. Every episode looks like a society spread from Town & Country. And I love the inclusion of so many female actors over the age of 60 (Cherry Jones, Jeannie Berlin, Holly Hunter and J. Smith-Cameron are a 4 woman dream team). But despite all this chewy goodness, something about the show has always been a little off. (And no, it’s not because I own a ludicrously capacious hand bag.)

At one time, I thought my misgivings were about the writing. Somewhere in the back-stabbing morass of season 2 (or maybe late season 1 or season 3, it’s all a blur) I was drowning in double talk, trying to absorb dialogue that actually said nothing, like the characters themselves, cheeky and quick but free of meaningful content. And while I can believe that there are people that drop that many F-bombs per minute (a new entertainment metric: F-bpm!), I struggle to believe that those same people could be so consistently clever, dropping one liners at break neck pace but never, ever cracking a smile at a sibling-rival’s bon mot. Part of good writing is character arcs and Succession has almost none. These characters don’t learn, don’t change, even when faced with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes (and dead cater waiters). They keep on blundering forwards, thinking they’re clever when really they’re just liars.

Maybe I just wasn’t sure what kind of show I was watching. Much ink has been spilled on debating the show’s undefinable genre. Is it a comedy or a drama? The show runners have said that Succession is a dark comedy or satire, a skewering of the billionaires of our society. But is it? It is, most assuredly, prestige TV. And isn’t prestige TV inherently glamorizing and celebrating our maladaptive billionaires? The satire certainly seems lost on Succession’s fans. How many articles would there be helping us to dress like a Roy or how to rock a power bob if we didn’t as a culture admire these people? The Roys should not be aspirational.

Just a casual perusal of the #Succession makes obvious that many fans have picked a character to root for, forgiving their foibles and hoping for their chosen one to win the crown; this is our modern dress Game of Thrones. There are innumerable posts declaring love for Roman (who supports fascists, sends female coworkers dick pics and literally washes his hands of responsibility when things explode), Kendall (manslaughtering drug addict and absent father) and Shiv (philandering emotional-unavailable, alcohol swilling and coke snorting while pregnant little sis). These characters, these people are awful and have been shown to be again and again, yet the average viewer seems to forget this fact.

And this, is where Succession has fallen down. Is it satire if the audience doesn’t know it’s satire? The election episode seems to have been a breaking point for some, the post-traumatic political stress disorder left behind by 2016 rearing its ugly head. Viewers felt cheated, that Kendall, who had played at being woke, would help install a ‟handsome Nazi.” Team Roman fans were disillusioned, though how you can be disillusioned by a boy who has professed many a time to be undisturbed by fascism, is beyond me.

And that is what's missing for me. In that very first episode of the show, we saw exactly the kind of people the Roys are. We watched Roman’s excruciating taunting of the stand-in ball player groundskeeper’s son, mercilessly ripping up the potential million dollar check in his face when the boy fails to make a home run. We watched Logan pass off his soon to be son-in-law’s grovelingly expensive watch gift to the pained family as a consolation prize. I’ve never come across a better example of the famous Maya Angelou quote: ‟When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

After that first episode, there are no regular people in the world of Succession. And in not including regular people, real people, Succession has made its audience believe that only the Roys are real people. At the funeral, there was a moment when I thought Logan’s brother Ewan would bring a reckoning, but by putting the critique in a setting where it was, regardless of the dead in question, inappropriate at best, the show again undermined any veracity that critique would have had and let the dysfunctional siblings have the last word. Alas, in Succession there is no moral center, no observational character to offset or underscore the evil, the sheer absurdity of these people, and therefore it relies on the viewer to make these leaps, to get it. In a world where Trump garnered the votes of 73.6 million Americans in 2020, I doubt that we as a nation are up to it.

So who will win the big chair? I’m not sure I care. Sure, Jeremy Strong will act the hell out of it. Sarah Snook will do that charming Shiv stutter. Kieran Culkin will perfect his kicked puppy dog eyes, Matthew Macfadyen will appear wounded and Nicholas Braun will awkwardly suck up. It doesn’t matter who wins. When the Roys, or the Matssons, or the Trumps, or the Kochs, or the Murdochs win, we all lose. So if it ends in anything other than a fiery private jet crash with the entire Roy clan aboard, I won’t be surprised, but I will be disappointed.

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