Published on September 6th, 2019 | by Noah Dimitrie0
In the early stages of its second season, Noah’s not hesitant to call Succession one of the best things in the echelons of Peak TV.
When the early reviews for Succession’s first few episodes were released last summer, the response was lukewarm. The show’s pilot and subsequent handful of episodes dove right into the Roy family, possibly a little too deep for critics who found it to be a bit of a hat-on-a-hat. In Daniel D’addario’s initial review in Variety, he critiques the show’s acerbic tone: “Its pulpy willingness to be its silliest self can be great fun, but can also transport a show that often tries to say something real about the hazards of generational wealth into too-easy comedy.” Many other critics followed suit, ganging up on its confusing tone, which has (and still does) feel like Wall Street meets Veep, mining equal parts comedy and drama from its setting.
I myself agreed with critics like D’Addario when I saw the pilot. In fact, the first couple episodes lacked a distinct story driving it; the most we get on that front is the always ambitious Kendall trying to sweeten his bid to take over his father’s position as CEO of Waystar-Royco, a Murdoch-esque media and entertainment empire. Because of the looser narrative, the show leaned hard on its comedy, which I believe turned a lot of critics off for playing it a bit too fast and loose with its money-grubbing subjects. But unlike some viewers with expensive taste, I had a shameless fixation on its whole world. From Episode 1, I had a hunch that it would either be great or crash and burn, and I was totally on board to find out.
By the time the show hit episode 4 or 5, it proved it was on the track to greatness. The characters felt more lived in (shout out to the brilliant cast who seemed to fast-track that pursuit) and the show came alive in a way I hadn’t really seen before. What, at first, appeared to be an overzealous concern in these characters’ “problems,” finally morphed into a more tempered empathy–compelling but not condoning. Through this we begin to understand the roots of their greed, the insecurity lying behind their power moves. The characters still are human beings after all, they’re just human beings engorged in a fantasy land of ostensibly non-problems. So, as the show chugged along, what looked like budding flaws now were the show’s biggest strengths. What’s more is that the show illustrated this with a magnetic swagger, rubbing it in our dumb faces that it knew what it was doing all along, confidence exuding in every frame. The cast was just “on,” the vulgar quips: “on.” Egg on our face; we were the one’s who had to play catch-up, not the other around.
Now in the early stages of its second season, I’m not hesitant to call Succession one of the best things in the echelons of Peak TV right now. It managed to pass the litmus test of any great television show: it stuck to its goddamn guns. In this day and age of hyper-dissemination of reviews, hot takes, think pieces, etc., it can be so easy for a show to lose its confidence or shake up its formula in the second season to try to earn that coveted “trending” status, or at least hold the attention of its audience in this hyper-saturated world of content (I’m looking at you, Big Little Lies on HBO, Dear White People on Netflix). Succession had its characters fully realized from day one, it just didn’t bother to contrive a story around them just for the hell of it. Everything comes much more organically in it. That’s why it came off as glib early on—because the show’s satire is so baked into the nuances not only of the characters but also of the detached Billionaire’s Club world in which it takes place. The show relentlessly inundates us in its world of privilege that its characters absurdity and narcissism seem more commonplace—they stop sticking out and instead normalcy becomes absurd. That makes the funny parts funnier and the dramatic parts absorbing like any good family drama. It’s the brilliance of understanding that the audience can empathize without relating, and as a result Jessie Armstrong and Co. construct a slick and naturalistic way of satirizing in which every story beat is earnest and comes out of character while its dramatic irony is lost on the characters.
Whether you’re familiar with multi-billion dollar business dealing and all its concurrent lingo, you’re dropped into enemy territory from the get-go, but the show still works even if you’re not an expert on modern day Capitalist Overlords. When the show gets a little bit confusing, it gets funnier, mainly because of characters like Cousin Greg, the clueless newbie in the fold, or Tom the perpetually frumpy husband of Shiv Roy, who’s a kiss-ass to some and a manipulative asshole to others. Or Roman Roy, the devil-may-care youngest sibling whose abrasive personality and general lack of empathy for anyone or anything hints at Patrick Bateman levels of white collar psychopathy. The show’s colorful characters still belong in this world yet give the show a respite from all the boardroom talk and shareholder mumbo jumbo (I’m still looking for somebody to give me a satisfying explanation of a “bear hug”). Ultimately, the drama is compelling because of the weakness we identify behind the smug grins of the Roy clan, despite sometimes being perplexed by what exactly their discussing with such blazing speed. That serves a satirical and earnestly dramatic purpose on equal footing. What’s more absorbingly hilarious that a bunch of rich people pretending they aren’t making it all up as they go along?
The Emmy nominations came out a while ago and Succession was in the drama category. I can understand why it might have been strategic on HBO’s part, given that the comedy competition is dense to say the least. Yet, I still have to wonder how this show is being branded as its popularity and acclaim grows. I think its not only best enjoyed but also the most powerful and sobering when its perceived as a comedy. In this weird time we live in, where the lifestyles of the 1% are more and more untethered from the experience of the average Joe, Succession needs to be a comedy in order to get its scathing indictment of class privilege across. Otherwise, we just have filthy rich people sitting in rooms making threats that feel empty because we can’t even fathom 100 billion dollars. In this era, it feels like there’s a new film or series released about the hyper rich every week. A topic in high demand, it often walks a fine line between sobering and pornographic. Succession is brilliant because it knows it’s a comedy and leans on that to save the show from just being an indulgence into people’s morbid curiosity about the lives of the rich and famous. Its plot is still gripping like a drama, it just comes with a rambunctious and thoroughly watchable, self-aware asterisk.
This is the show’s brilliant tight rope balance of tone working its magic—the snarky sense of humour that hangs on the Roys detachment from reality makes these sobering story beats hilarious at the same time. Instead of the show just saying, “Ya, the rich are fucking assholes and we’re all screwed,” it always makes sure the rich are the butt of the joke. In this sense, Succession offers a small glimpse of catharsis for the average, the every day prole. We get to see the things that normally depress us weaponized against the rich and powerful, their own filthy minds undeniably spun back on them, rhetorical comedy that cancels out any form of gleeful indulgence in their fancy lives and makes them undeniably resemble the likes of scared, little children. As Roman capriciously states in a recent episode: “Let the adults in the room handle this.” The irony is about as rich as the characters themselves. It’s the kind of satire that not only makes you laugh but also punches back.