Why Succession is such a hit - and why its fans won't shut up about it
The story of a billionaire family squabbling over their billions shouldn't make for classic TV drama, but there's a secret to Succession's appeal, writes Nick Mitchell
The argument over the best TV drama of all time is as never-ending as it is daft. The top spot tends to alternate between The Wire, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, that triumvirate of American prestige televisual grit (all led by various forms of male anti-hero, tellingly) - although IMDB actually ranks Band of Brothers and Chernobyl higher than the first two, for what it’s worth (not that much).
Of course, any ‘definitive’ list is just a conversation-starter, in the same way that all the endless awards shortlists are. There’s no scientifically measurable value in any form of art - that’s what makes it art, to mangle a well-worn cliché.
But Succession, which returned to our screens this week, is certainly part of the ‘best ever’ conversation, judging by the reaction to the Roys’ comeback on Sunday night / Monday morning here in the UK. The first episode of series four, titled ‘The Munsters’, was no gentle reintroduction - instead it put the patriarch Logan in direct and dramatic competition with his three offspring, Shiv, Kendall and Roman, as each side entered into a farcical bidding war for a rival legacy media company.
One of the complaints you hear a lot about Succession fans from non-Succession fans is how insufferable we are. We won’t be content until every last person on earth is convinced of the show’s unimpeachable quality and relevance to ‘the discourse’. It’s also definitely true that the show is particularly popular among people in the media, given its subject matter, and the media's love of navel-gazing. The total of 2.3 million viewers who tuned into the season 4 premiere fell well short of the 8.2 million who were still gripped by The Last of Us finale on HBO / Sky Atlantic. Not exactly niche, but it’s arguably a loyal rather than a mass audience.
But I make no apology for Succession fans and our excessive enthusiasm. Despite my opening comments about all art being subjective, Succession is the best thing on TV right now, and if you’re not watching it you’re missing out on some of the sharpest writing and compelling performances in years.
You might be wondering why anyone would want to watch a drama about rich adult-babies squabbling over their rich dad’s media empire - it doesn’t exactly sound like the most riveting or escapist entertainment. And while it took me half of series one to really get into it, once the show hooks you it really hooks you. That’s despite none of the characters being remotely relatable - well, apart from hapless cousin Greg, or perhaps Shiv and Tom's poor neglected dog Mondale.
The reason the show is so razor-sharp can be traced to its British DNA. Creator Jesse Armstrong is best known for the superlative sitcom Peep Show, before he went on to work with Armando Iannucci on shows like The Thick of It and Veep. He’s also built a writing room for Succession that includes top British dramatists like Georgia Pritchett and Lucy Prebble, and the brutal put-downs and cinéma vérité style from their earlier work is a key part of the appeal. Then there’s Dundee-born Brian Cox’s turn as Logan Roy, who brings a streetwise Scottish menace to his Rupert Murdoch-inspired media mogul.
Across the whole cast though, the actors are really hitting their A-game as this final series gets going. Kieran Culkin is on fire as the acerbic Roman (“You look tired, and your face is giving me a headache”), Jeremy Strong has taken Kendall’s line in new media babble to the next level (“The Hundred is Substack meets Masterclass meets The Economist meets The New Yorker”) and Sarah Snook is brilliant as an increasingly world-weary Shiv, who's now lost some of her previous purpose without Logan around to seek approval from.
Then there’s the newly crowned “Disgusting Brothers” of Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Greg (Nicholas Braun), who conjure laugh-out-loud moments whenever they share a scene. In this week’s episode Tom tells Greg he’s “accidentally made a sex tape” for Logan after his dangerous liaison in the latter’s CCTV-filled home, and Tom is wonderfully snobby when he ridicules Greg's date's bag ("What’s even in there? Flat shoes for the Subway?").
Succession’s real genius is in how it masters both outrageous comedy and high drama - and how it makes us give a damn about the fortunes of all these horrible people. Armstrong has hinted that the final season had to live up to the meaning of the show’s title, so we can expect fireworks in the last nine episodes. After that, us fans might just stop going on about whether it’s the best thing on TV. Until the spin-off’s announced.