From Violent to Vicious
Why SUCCESSION Is the Definitive Piece of Our Times
No Real Spoilers Involved: I give away remarkably little. If you haven’t watched this incredible HBO show, this’ll hopefully convince you to do so. And if you have, then it’ll validate your many hours of investment.
Succession is an HBO series that centers on the Roy family, the dysfunctional owners of Waystar RoyCo, a global media and entertainment conglomerate, who are fighting for control of the company amid uncertainty about the health of the family’s patriarch, Logan Roy.
I am a human beingCapable of doing terrible things.- AWOLNATION
I wouldn’t say it’s an exaggeration to state that the most significant thing that I experienced in 2021, besides the birth of my son, was finally sitting down and watching My Dinner with André. Among its myriad points, this exchange has burrowed its way into my soul:
Wally: Yeah, I think it’s that moment of contact with another person…. That’s what scares us. I mean that moment of being face-to-face with another person…. You wouldn’t think it’d be so frightening. It’s strange that we find it so frightening.
André: Well, it isn’t that strange…. First of all, there are some pretty good reasons for being frightened. I mean, you know, a human being is a complex and dangerous creature.
My blood has run cold each of the three times I’ve seen this 40-year-old film. Ponder how much more powerful other organisms are, from lions and tigers and bears (oh, my) to viruses like malaria and Covid. Yuval Noah Harari has written extensively about why Homo sapiens conquered the planet, one of the paramount reasons being our ability to organize.
It’s a jungle out there, and yet, humans have so subjugated all other life forms that livestock, that which we use to feed ourselves (unnecessarily, I might add), outnumber wild mammals and birds ten-to-one. We’ve managed to change the climate of the entire world in a matter of a couple of centuries. What’s truly mind-blowing is how fast we did it: if the entire age of the 14-billion-year-old Universe were a calendar year, Homo sapiens don’t even appear until a few minutes before midnight tonight, December 31.
Shrinking the horizon a bit, let’s say all 4.5 billion years of Earth were a football field; then all of human existence is the width of a Christmas tree light bulb.
Yes, much of the modification of the globe is the work of our ancestors, but the fact remains that we’re evolutionarily the same — and we are vicious beasts. So, when another human trains their sights on you, you’d do well to shudder.
Appropriately, I turn now to Arrested Development. Not the fantastically funny Jason Bateman-led TV show, but the ’90s group who sang “Mr. Wendel,” grilling us over our concept of civilization:
His only worries are sickness and an occasional harassment by the police and their chase
Uncivilized we call him, but I just saw him eat off the food we waste
Civilization: are we really civilized — yes or no? Who are we to judge?
When thousands of innocent men could be brutally enslaved or killed over a racist grudge.
What civilization means is that we no longer overtly act like animals, hilariously depicted in the tour de force known as Mean Girls.
The modern day person is much more sophisticated and subtle than the caveman, as laid out in this Freudian quote:
The first human being
who hurled an insult instead of a stone
was the founder of civilization.
If I’m reviewing a TV show, why am I starting 14 billion years ago? After all, I do love context. But really, beyond the fact that, conceptually, Evolution is an easy pivot to Succession, it’s because I feel this show is among the most significant in artistic history.
Quite a statement, I realize, but I found it fascinating in the ’90s when my brother said that he believed that if the Beatles were still around today, they’d be the Stone Temple Pilots. He purported you could draw a straight line from one band to the other. Agree or not, let’s let it be. It’s an intriguing academic exercise to wonder who the successors are to Shakespeare.
It’s no accident they’d be British. And as much as I hate to admit it, as both an Indian and an American — my people got colonized twice by these fools — the Brits do it better. Show Creator Jesse Armstrong has done the nearly impossible: made a prestige show equally comedic and dramatic.
(Technically, it’s a drama. Two reasons. Format: It’s an hour instead of a half-hour. Content: As we learned in acting class, comedy is about people in trouble; drama is about people in danger. If somebody gets injured in a comedy, it’s funny. Suffice it to say this is not the case with this show. It’s similar to Fargo: it’s not a dark comedy; it’s a funny drama. But realize this: Succession is probably the funniest show on TV right now.)
There has been one stateside exception to this equal-parts-funny-and-serious rule: Louie. (I might grant you M*A*S*H. And I can hear an outcry of others, but before you retort, ask yourself whether your example makes you actually LOL and (nearly) cry.) Other than that, you have to turn to The Office (UK), Extras, and Fleabag. There’s gotta be something in the water over there in Great Britain. Armstrong even manages to tie them together: an outcome to a major plotline is the result of a comedian’s roasting of the Roys family. Certainly doesn’t hurt that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are among the Executive Producers.
What’s doubly satisfying is that the last Empire is doing such strong social commentary on the current one. Permeating the American zeitgeist is the overwhelming sensation that our reign is coming to its conclusion. It’s no accident that the conditions are right for a show like Succession to slap us in the face: the extreme cynicism, the institutional rot, the passing of the torch from legacy media to social media, the meteoric rise of Big Tech… a show not-so-loosely based on the Murdochs seems fitting beyond measure.
If you had to make a short list of the individuals responsible for the collapse of the American Empire, it’s difficult to imagine not placing Rupert Murdoch, the mastermind behind Fox News, in the top five. Which I’ll bet is the underlying reason some friends have texted me they’ve had a tough time diving into this program. I went back and re-watched all three seasons, and whilst S1 (Season One) is very strong, it’s a bit like Goodfellas in that you feel you have nobody to root for. They’re a bunch of rich assholes, so who gives a crap who wins?
Because I can’t work a job like any other slob
Punching in and punching out and sucking up to Bob
Marrying a beeyotch, having seven keeyods
Giving up and growing old and hoping there’s a God.
- “Troublemaker” by Weezer
Allegorically, what with their incessant talk of “family,” the Roys are the Mob. They’re the living embodiment of Sonny’s viewpoint from A Bronx Tale (“The workin’ man’s a sucker”) or Seth Davis in Boiler Room, who himself quotes arguably the most salient hip-hop line in history:
Notorious B.I.G. said it best:
“Either you’re slingin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.”
Nobody wants to work for it anymore.
There’s no honor in taking the after-school job at Mickey D’s.
Honor’s in the dollar, kid.
So I went the white boy way of slinging crack rock: I became a stock broker.
It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.
Hell to the Yes. (L to the OG.) It’s the only platform whose characters go on such a transformative journey. In S2 of the greatest show ever, The Wire, I went from detesting Frank Sobotka to adoring him. And so it’s been with Tom Wambsgans, played masterfully by actor Matthew Macfadyen (whom, based solely on the spelling, I assume is the long lost brother of Dwyane Wade).
Tom bottomed out midway through the S2 season finale, precisely because he was behaving like such a bottom. As an alpha male, I found his limpness nauseating. After almost every episode, I turned to my wife and asked, “Why is Tom such an unbelievable pussy?” But just when I was ready to give up on him, he started on his road to redemption.
I once asked my friend, comedian Ron Josol, whom I met when we both opened for Russell Peters in Toronto, whether he scored a lot after shows. I’ll never forget what he said: “No, I don’t, because I can’t follow myself.” What awesome comic-speak for: “I’m so funny onstage that I can’t replicate all that power 1:1.” And so it is with most solid shows: LOST’s S3 finale (“We have to go back!”) is the peak of the show. I hate to admit it, but The Wire’s penultimate episode of S3 (“Middle Ground”) is also the apex of the run. And yet somehow, though I’d wager the father/son scene in the Succession S2 finale is the best intimate moment we’ve seen on the small screen this millennium, they manage to hit new highs in S3.
(And here’s a funny li’l LA moment for ya: at our neighbors’ backyard barbeque last month, one of the women in my wife’s book club revealed she’s known Jeremy Strong, the actor who portrays Kendall Roy, since they were 10. She said she could testify that this is the role Strong has been prepping for his entire life.)
In the S3 premiere, Cousin Greg describes the web thusly: “The internet is big, obviously… and I…. couldn’t read it all.” And when I spent hours deciphering Redditors comments on the True Detective subreddits, it turned out that many of us had come up with better endings than the writers did. Not so with Succession. Somehow, they’ve managed to outwit the entire internet. I honestly don’t know how you do that.
Beyond the fact that the writing is superb (and remember, this is no small feat given the subject matter is really just a bunch of spoiled white kids trying to take over a corporation — yawn), the production level is off the charts. HBO shows just operate at a higher level. Who does long show intros anymore? In this day and age of the short attention span, opening with a 1min40sec instrumental track is a major risk… and one that pays off because I know I’m not the only one who’s looked it up on Spotify and added it to a playlist. And as far as the aesthetics, the way the Roy Family lives makes Dynasty look like Section 8 housing. And let’s be real. This is how we know the end is nigh: nothing intrigues me more than looking at very rich or very poor people. As a middle-classer, I’m endlessly beguiled by, “How do they live like THAT?” It’s a terrible thing to say, but I’m no less voyeuristic than you.
Cinematically, the way the show is shot is reminiscent of the epic feature and short films of our time: Roman’s pathetic look up at Gerri is Billy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Tom’s eating of the chicken and hurling of the water bottles is vintage Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. And the way Willa reluctantly boards the car smacks of Stephanie Seymour in Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain.”
Finally, what adds a layer of complexity is the same approach to the characters’ humanity. They’re awful, but that doesn’t suggest they have no empathy whatsoever. When it really comes down to it, underneath all of the constant snark and downright cruelty, there’s some degree of kindness, slight as it might be. When one of the siblings is in true danger (not simply trouble), the others do at least check in to see how they’re doing. But of course they must. If they were pure evil, it’d be no fun. They’d be robots. We as an audience could tell in which direction they’re going to go, because it would always be the most despicable one possible. And yet, when one of them gets on their knees and begs like Måneskin for mercy, the would-be destroyer recedes. Ironically and insidiously, this is what makes them even more inherently evil: because they know right from wrong and yet they so often choose wrong.
Succession is the culmination not only of the significant works of art in our culture but also the death rattle of a once-great empire. That’s what sets it apart from the mediocrity afoot at most other networks. Above all else, because it’s a British observation of America, because HBO attracts the sharpest writers, because it’s a comedy/drama amalgam, at its core, it contains the sickest burns we’ve seen. The way the Roys verbally savage each other is a sight and sound to behold. That folks so wealthy are still so miserable has been the best catharsis the rest of us can experience during the transition into the lousy beginning of a new decade. A reviewer called Succession the most violent show on TV. That’s ridiculous hyperbole (a pretty serious charge, coming from someone subject to hyperbole) — there’s very little physical violence. And no matter what the Woke Left preaches, silence is not violence and words are not violence. But as civilization has largely “progressed” from the violent to the vicious, nothing evinces this better than Succession.
Here’s to a New Year… and to hoping that they can keep up this level of quality… because they’re in the middle of a no-hitter and I wanna see it continue to… succeed.
Rajiv Satyal is a standup comedian. He resides in the L near the O-C.