How Succession became the must-watch TV show of the decade
The first episode of Succession, aired all the way back in June 2018, only hints at the Shakespearian epic that would follow. On first watch it seemed a little goofy: Kendall rapping along to the Beastie Boys in the back of his car; cousin Greg puking from behind the eyes of a fairground mascot. It’s tense and uncomfortable, but recognisably the work of creator Jesse Armstrong, thus-far best known for wry comedies Peep Show and Fresh Meat.
But when you look back with the benefit of three season’s worth of hindsight, it becomes clear that the characters in this malignant media dynasty arrive fully formed – or, more accurately, they arrive already broken.
From the moment we meet him, Kendall Roy, an executive at daddy’s empire Waystar Royco, is already desperately seeking the confidence that might win him the approval of his father, the patriarchal tycoon Logan Roy, be that through motivational music or hard drugs. The same goes for the rest of the clan: Shiv, Roman, Connor, Tom, Gerri, etcetera, etcetera: each one craves nothing more than to please the man they hate the most.
Over 29 episodes, Succession has revealed itself to be a treatise on familial relationships, a satire of the super-rich, a blistering takedown of media totalitarianism, and a Greek tragedy in the true sense, its cast of hubris-laden characters destined to fail – even perish? – from the moment they appear on screen.
The show seemed to reach a crescendo with the pitch-perfect ending to season two, which closed with Kendall’s public denunciation of Logan, eliciting a pained half-smile from a father who, for the first time, appears to genuinely respect his son.
After that, season three seemed like a gamble – what a perfect way to end a series it would have been! – but Armstrong et al managed to keep the momentum, and watching the same characters jump through the same hoops was more compulsive than ever.
Everything about Succession just feels right, from the theme music that can now be overlaid over any awkward footage to create an instant meme, to the individual performances, many of which are the result of ingenious casting (Kieran Culkin as the nihilistic sex-pest Roman? Ferris Bueller’s best mate Alan Ruck as Connor?).
And of course there is the soupcon of intrigue lent to the affair by the tensions among the cast, which by all accounts would make a pretty good TV show in itself.
Jeremy Strong shot to a kind of infamy following a New Yorker profile in which his co-stars expressed exasperation and concern over his intense method acting (a term he rejects), while Strong comes across as at best a kook and at worst completely untethered from reality.
The parallels between Strong – a hugely ambitious actor who once sought counsel from Daniel Day-Lewis but for whom the lead role he so craved never quite materialised – and Kendall are undeniable, adding a sprinkling of voyeurism to the viewing experience.
Meanwhile the Murdochs, the clear inspiration for Logan Roy and his Waystar empire, continue to make headlines themselves, with Rupert this week getting engaged for the fifth time aged 92. He still exerts his influence over hundreds of newspapers and dozens of TV channels, and over the years various of his children – notably Lachlan, Elisabeth and James – have been touted as potential successors to their seemingly indestructible father.
When people talk about the best TV shows ever made, the same names invariably crop up: The Sopranos, Mad Men, The West Wing, Twin Peaks. Succession already sits comfortably in that company. It’s the stand-out show in a decade of exceptional television, one that will be watched and rewatched for many years to come, destined to become a cultural and historical artefact – “is that really what the media was like in the 2020s?”.
It seems vanishingly unlikely that Armstrong will fail to deliver a fitting finale for his brilliant, terrible creations. Indeed, this final season could cement Succession as one of the all-time greats. I go into it with a sense of excitement, trepidation (it really is gruelling viewing sometimes), and genuine dread that it will soon all be over.
• Succession returns to HBO on Sunday and will stream on Now TV every Monday