The second season of HBO’s “Succession” — which has already inspired numerous recap podcasts, Twitter memes and fawning articles of praise — is the best show of September 2019. Below is the Streamline breakdown of what makes this genre-blending comedic tragedy so rich in detail and worthy of the attention. And if you want to stay up to date with what to watch on a weekly basis, subscribe to the Streamline newsletter.
What’s up: In this comedy/tragedy, Logan Roy, the aging founder and CEO of a major media and entertainment business, should name a successor to his capital throne for myriad reasons, but refuses to do so. His children, long groomed for positions of power in the company, battle each other for the spot, even though they know there’s a strong chance that none of them will ever ascend. While Siobhan “Shiv” Roy gives up a career in politics to chase the position, and her brother Roman takes management classes at the company, the “No. 1 boy” Kendall works as Logan’s obedient assistant. At the conclusion of the first season, Kendall tries to figuratively stab Logan in the back and take over the company, but gives up these plans when Logan helps Kendall cover up his drug-induced manslaughter at Shiv’s castle wedding. This incident turns Kendall into an emotionally broken automaton in fancy clothes.
The second season, which started airing this August, begins much like the first. The opening shots of the premiere episode feature Logan Roy stumbling around his home half-asleep, looking for the bathroom in his expensive new home, questioning his whereabouts and ultimately peeing on his carpet in confusion. This second season opens with Kendall Roy half-submerged underwater at an Icelandic spa and then only speaking in questions for his first eight lines of dialogue as he deals with various messengers sent by his father. Both characters want to be in control and surround themselves with riches to feel powerful, but other forces always yank them into crises and remind them their minds and bodies are fallible.
The main characters of this season can all be compared to Sisyphus doomed to push a boulder up a hill over and over again. The characters work extremely hard to keep pushing, but then some more powerful force always causes their boulders to roll back down. Adding insult to this horrid existence, the other characters in “Succession” tend to ruthlessly (and hilariously) mock whoever is dealing with a falling boulder, even if they know their own fall will inevitably come soon.
The cast includes Hiam Abbass, Nicholas Braun, J. Smith-Cameron, Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Ruck, Sarah Snook and Jeremy Strong. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are executive producers. Jesse Armstrong, the co-creator of the British comedy “Peep Show,” is the creator.
The second season of “Succession” runs 10 episodes of roughly one hour.
Sum up: “Succession” is a show that can balance the pain of emotional wreckage like Kendall’s quest to have a soul, while also surprisingly being the funniest show on television. Especially in the second season, nearly half of the dialogue is a joke. This balance of extreme despair with ridiculous dialogue works, somehow. The writers seem to possess a special magic to that end.
Much has been said about this show being a “Greek tragedy,” and much of the dialogue seems to openly embrace that comparison (such as a repeated reference to watching plays and “Oedipus Rex” in the most recent episode). In ancient times, tragedies had to have tragic endings, while comedies had happy endings. It remains unclear how “Succession” will end, but even if this narrative path goes darker and darker while never ultimately ascending like in Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy,” this show admirably makes the descent funny as hell, at least.
Heads up: “Succession” features a cast of horrible characters and you have to surrender to the horribleness to enjoy it. Out of context, characters making fun of a family member because her internal business memo started with joint quotes from Thomas Aquinas and Amelia Earhart and featured photos of people of many different “hues,” as the self-proclaimed “racist” character Roman puts it ... well, that sounds awful and maybe poetic, but not exactly funny in the traditional sense. That is to say, much of the humor takes getting used to. But the show still reliably has a few screwball jokes an episode.
It’s worth nothing that while the family barbs are often funny, the show still delves into the various ways these people essentially aren’t a family. In a Season 1 episode, the family has a group therapy session. While that doesn’t succeed in fixing any of their problems, this at least establishes that the characters know they’re broken.
Close up: The show rarely includes sex scenes, but the characters often process and discuss sexual acts in terms of power. The most recent episode begins and ends with dialogue about sexual situations and in between, there’s crude talk of Logan Roy “boning” a former CEO, multiple other betrayals of power based around who is having sex with who and the aforementioned “Oedipus Rex” reference that’s related to the kids having to “fuck” their mom with a bad business deal. Business may not be better than sex for these characters, but they sure care more about winning power over one another than any form of human connection.
History: The writers have based the Roy family on various real-life media mogul families. The closest similarity has been to the Murdochs, with Logan being the Rupert Murdoch figure and the fictional company resembling News Corp and the Fox Corporation. The Roys also resemble the Redstones, which owns National Amusements, the holding company of big businesses such as Viacom and CBS.
Series creator Armstrong actually wrote a script called “Murdoch” years ago, but never got that produced. He has since stressed that the Roys are a fictional family, but that the writers’ room has drawn inspiration from many families.
“There’s loads of succession stories to draw on,” Armstrong said at a Television Critics Association press event in 2018. “We wanted to draw on all the good, rich stories there are about succession and about media and high politics.”
Comp: The dialogue, full of insult-based jokes, has a strong resemblance to “Veep,” which makes sense as Armstrong wrote an episode of that show in the past and co-wrote an Academy Award-nominated script (the 2009 movie “In the Loop”) with “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci. The show also shares an executive producer from “Veep” in Frank Rich.
The super rich characters power-playing in New York City is certainly a well-tread trope, with recent shows such as “Billions” and “Neo Yokio” tackling similar styles. In many ways, “Succession” is actually very similar to the teen show “Gossip Girl,” as both can be described as comedic, self-aware pseudo-soap operas featuring the ungodly wealthy of Manhattan.
The Characters and Money: “Succession” stars the oligarchs of contemporary times. These characters have all the money in the world, but that’s never enough. The money allows for decadent homes, private jets and sinful ortolan dinners, but it doesn’t make the characters feel like “good people” who have the talent to accomplish anything worth a damn. These characters are shells of humans in moneyed costumes and they all seem to think their only hope is to go yet deeper and acquire more.
Bonus: In an interview with GQ, Jeremy Strong (who plays Kendall) spoke about how Adam McKay originally pitched the show to him. The quote gives pretty clear insight into the show’s explicit aim towards tragedy.
“I’d worked with Adam [McKay] on ‘The Big Short,’” said Strong. “I went to lunch at his house, and he said that he had this script that was kind of loosely about the Murdochs — sort of a King Lear–meets-the-media-industrial-complex kind of thing. It sounded really compelling to me, and I read the script and fell in love with it.”