What is Succession? A zested commentary manufactured for Twitter discourse? A flashy comedy of manners with awkwardly ladled references to King Lear? A parody of billionaires, as told by millionaires? Or the most beguiling, witty, and vantablack-dark TV series of recent years?
Rebecca Mead, in her eminently readable New Yorker profile of Succession “CEO” Jesse Armstrong, says his show “documents wealth but it does not fetishize it” and “makes affluence look vaguely diseased.” Is that really true? Your average viewer probably thinks that being really, really rich might not have worked out for these people – but would be willing to have a stab at it themselves!
Sure, few of the show’s characters seem particularly happy, but this doesn’t really act as a strong rebuff to the idea that their lives are enviable ones. For all the ugliness and vituperation, the show is laden with luxury-porn, from the helicopter tracking shots of the Upper East Side to season one’s conclusion in the Neo-Gothic splendour of Eastnor Castle and season three’s visit to the almost repulsively toothsome Villa Cetinale, outside Siena.
The show’s constant, grinding confrontations provide the high drama for which it is rightly adored, but they also allow us to perceive some grit in these billionaire’s pearls, and to observe their lives, however covetously, with the illusion of critical distance. Its negativity is part of a larger cultural discourse of heroic displeasure. Batman must now be sad. James Bond, very tired. Willy Wonka liked chocolate so much that we were simply forced to turn him into Timothée Chalamet. Embarrassed by our toys, we pretend they are unhappy, so that we may play unhindered by the knowledge of our own aspirational fantasies.
In the American press, it appears to be canon that Succession is a satire of some kind, and a pitch-dark one at that. The scheming scions of the Roy family are delightedly labelled as Machiavellian and within its globe-hopping cast of characters is found some sort of rejoinder to globalised finance and wealth contagion. From our perspective on the eastern shores of the Atlantic, however, Succession discourse takes on a different flavour.
Here in the U.K., Succession is widely touted as an Anglo-American venture, since this is how Brits prefer to describe any show written by a half-English writer’s room about Americans, produced by Americans, performed mostly by Americans and filmed in America, by other Americans for an audience largely made up of Americans.
The series does have a few notable British flourishes, not least in the Roys’ mother-in-exile, Lady Caroline Collingwood, played with flinty brilliance by Dame Harriet Walter, or the exquisite oleaginity of Matthew MacFadyen’s American-accented turn as Tom Wambsgans.
The true star is, of course, Brian Cox’s superlatively vituperative Scottish patriarch, Logan Roy. Indeed, in that way of Scots, his Scottishness has only increased with time. This is partly due to the show’s canniness in adding layers of depth to the elder Roy’s fearsome persona, and partly because he played the entire first series believing the character was from Vancouver, only for the one reference to him being from Dundee to be added in post after he’d filmed every one of his lines. As gracious as Logan is garrulous, Cox claims to have been moved by this touch, considering it a nice little tribute to his roots, where perhaps other, more observant, thesps might have intuited a comment on his success at a Canadian accent.
The show’s creator Jesse Armstrong is a veteran of British comedy, with credits from Armando Iannucci’s The Thick Of It and In The Loop. He is known for creating, with his erstwhile partner Sam Bain, the phenomenally successful and intermittently brilliant Peep Show. The hereditary principle, which still governs more of British life than is comfortable to accept, is catnip to a certain American demographic, while also providing a handy dramatic tool — a splicing more ingenious than running a 50/50 US/UK writer’s room from an office in Brixton.
Succession’s status as satire appears tightly wedded to its half-state as a comment on the family of Rupert Murdoch, although the connections between the two began small and have only drifted further as the series has progressed. It is, of course, hardly fair to scorn its verisimilitude to the Murdoch empire, since capturing the actuality of that behemoth would hardly make for compelling drama, before we even begin to countenance the steps they would take to kill any attempt in the crib.
Armstrong’s previous attempt to construct a docu-drama about Murdoch floundered on take-off, a full decade after the great Satan was first parodied as a splenetic, raging patriarch manipulating his families’ expectations in the film Fierce Creatures (1997). He has not briefed his legal myrmidons against Jesse Armstrong and his ten-strong posse of quip-slinging writers. (Though he did, it should be noted, take the BBC to the state-backed regulator, Ofcom, over their three-part documentary The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, after he objected to the implication ‘that he posed a threat to liberal democracy.’) The accuracy is besides the point. Satire, like a baleful Batman or a sad Bond, lends legitimacy to the kind of gags that might otherwise go unnoticed by broadsheet writers in need of a rubric through which they can breathlessly compare it, not to The Thick Of It and Peep Show, but Thomas Mann and Dean Swift.
To Brits, Armstrong’s success with Succession is varnished with the tacit agreement that succeeding in America is the truest success one can ever have, a truism both parodied in and embodied by Iannucci and Armstrong’s script for In The Loop. In that cinematic outing for the The Thick Of It gang, the dismal, put-upon spivs that make up the British cabinet go to Washington and immediately become infatuated with their American equivalents, who are just as dismal and put-upon, but have nicer teeth and bigger cars. That the film also found place in its cast for James Gandolfini, then indisputably the biggest star on American TV, may suggest cake was had as well as eaten.
The rub is that Succession really sings. Its set pieces are as good as anything currently on TV, and some of its lines hit like nothing else. It’s a dark farce, a slow, steady cranking of a huge, interpersonal nerve engine that bristles and groans until the viewer is left, spent and distraught at each episode’s end. Some of it can feel forced, like Kendall’s rapping, the ketamine banter at the end of season one, or mildly groan-inducing epithets like ‘the cunt of Monte Cristo’, which bear the strangled tang of one-liners rescued from projects nixed elsewhere.
The gag-punched energy of Succession has, of course, its source in Peep Show, which was loaded with rib-tickling one-liners, but dredged its narrative through a remorselessly nihilistic lens. All the things that make life worth living had to be washed through a miserabilist rinse, making a sort of kitchen-sink sitcom drama, but loaded with impeccable jokes. If there may be one secret to its success, a plumbable link to its British origins, it could be that this same mood governs every second of Succession. There is no forgiveness or redemption – nor does their need to be – the reigning mode is that of cackling apathy. It’s not particularly satirical, nor is it a useful comment on the capitalism of which it is a product. But it’s funny, and good. And that’s enough.