As it returns for season two, the family saga is TV’s most vital show – and among a wave of art taking a scathing look at the rich white men who rule the West, writes Hugh Montgomery.
Warning: contains spoilers for Succession series 1
Back around the turn of the millennium, when the so-called ‘golden age of TV’ began, one of the key developments was the rejection of conventionally ‘likeable’ characters. From The Sopranos onwards, protagonists became darker and more morally compromised. But twenty years on, it’s fair to say that few shows have pushed the envelope on the unlikeability front quite like Succession – HBO’s blistering show about a super-rich US family at war over their right-wing media empire, which returns for its second series next week.
More like this
The Roy clan is so hellish, you find yourself wondering: who, really, is the most damned of them all? Ashen-faced, incandescently raging paterfamilias Logan, a man whose parenting skills are up there with Darth Vader? Older son Connor, who throws tantrums over the temperature of butter, pays for a girlfriend, and with no apparent political experience or knowledge, is now running for president on an anti-elitist ticket (ahem)? Middle and youngest sons Kendall and Roman – responsible, respectively, for the death of a man in a car crash while high on drugs, and the manslaughter of many in an explosive satellite accident?
In 2019 you cannot move for portrayals of baldly toxic masculinity on television
Or son-in-law Tom, an oleaginous sycophant who, in his position as Head of News, salivates over how many ‘skulls’ he can fire? It should be noted that there is a daughter, Shiv, among them, with her own lack of moral scruples – but that the very most excruciating and disturbing moments are reserved for men.
View image of (Credit: HBO)
In that respect, as well as being beautifully written, at once grimly funny and unexpectedly tragic, Succession feels like a series that could not be more in touch with the cultural moment. From the virulently misogynistic teens of Euphoria, to the abusive husbands of Big Little Lies and Dirty John, and the assorted psychopathic killers of Mindhunter, in 2019 you cannot move for portrayals of baldly toxic masculinity on television – something Succession offers up in multiples. But more specifically, it feels part of a reckoning with the particular strain of rich white men who continue to have a grip on the Western political and media establishment – and have, arguably, or very clearly, abused that power to monstrous effect.
The kernel of the idea for the show originated in a script that its creator Jesse Armstrong wrote about the real-life Murdoch family many years ago – but they are hardly unique in their combination of excessive influence and nepotistic dysfunction, and the Roys bear the influence of numerous clans from the Maxwells to, of course, the Trumps.
Abuses on left and right
In the cinema, meanwhile, Succession producer Adam McKay recently directed Vice, another work focused on the egos behind the misanthropy of the modern United States – chiefly, in this case, ex-Vice-President Dick Cheney. And running on US TV at the moment is The Loudest Voice, a biopic of Cheney’s conservative contemporary, the late Fox News chief Roger Ailes (played by Russell Crowe with a bald cap and prosthetic jowls), who whipped up hysteria as head of the Murdoch cable network before being brought down by a string of sexual harassment allegations.
A new drama will revisit the Clinton/Lewinsky affair – a story of a 49-year-old man exploiting a 22-year-old intern
But it’s not just abuses of power on the right that are being addressed: almost two years on from the allegations of serial abuse by Harvey Weinstein, the first pieces of fiction inspired by the downfall of this former titan of Hollywood liberals are emerging – the most prominent one thus far being the David Mamet play Bitter Wheat, currently playing in London. And, only this week, it’s been announced that the next series of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology show, Impeachment, will revisit the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair – a story of a 49-year-old man in the most powerful position in the world exploiting a 22-year-old intern, and destroying her life, even if that was not really how the salacious press coverage presented it at the time.
View image of (Credit: Showtime/Alamy)
Armstrong emphasises that Succession, which was originally conceived back in the mists of time in late 2015, was not made with any zeitgeist in mind. “I don’t think you think like that,” he tells BBC Culture. “When you’re writing a show, it’s not how the creative process works. I guess you’re lucky if people respond to it and feel it has some kind of relationship to the time [living] in.” However that zeitgeist is also, of course, inescapable, as Lucy Prebble, the acclaimed British playwright who is a writer and executive producer on the show, acknowledges. “There’s no doubt that that’s the air that the show is breathing. It’s almost too innate to talk about it. We never really talked about it in those terms in the writers’ room because it’s so much part of its DNA.”
No moral centre
But while these narratives that address monstrous male establishment power could not be more important, they’re evidently not an easy sell, especially over many episodes or series. Prebble says that in the Succession writers’ room, there were discussions about whether the story needed “a character who was going to show us what the right thing to do was or who we would root for in a more traditional way.”
We would joke ‘is this just a show about the villains. Is that ok? Are we allowed to do that?’ – Lucy Prebble
One suggestion was that that character could be Kendall, the middle son who spent the first series in a power struggle with his father for the reins of the corporation. “We would talk quite a lot about whether or not Kendall’s vision for the company was something that was somehow inspiring and interesting and he was being thwarted from doing this thing by his father and corporate interests. [But] every time we would talk about that, Jesse would sit and think and go ‘no, no, because it’s not true.’”
So it was they proceeded without the aid of a moral buoy. “We would joke ‘is this just a show about the villains. Is that ok? Are we allowed to do that?’ And the more [we thought about it], the more we convinced ourselves that not only was that ok, it was sort of necessary.” Then, bearing out their decision, Prebble says, season one went out just as the full dysfunction of the Trump administration was making itself apparent. “And just by chance or a sense of taste, we ended up with something much more accurate, which is that everybody is a coward, everybody is an idiot and everybody is trying to cover their back almost all of the time – and that does feel what reality is like at the moment in terms of the powerful.”
Wealthy people are not usually great aesthetes. They live in places that look like five star hotels, and they’re really not focused on making beautiful stuff of their lives – Jesse Armstrong
But perhaps what’s most fearless about a show Succession isn’t its depiction of amoral men – it’s its refusal, in any way, to flatter them. After all, from Tony Soprano to Don Draper to Jaime Lannister, most of TV’s great ‘bad men’ have had their horrifying traits offset by a certain fundamental charm or allure – assets in which the Roys are distinctly lacking. Similarly, where most dramas about the super-rich inevitably swerve into ‘wealth porn’, Armstrong was conscious from the outset to avoid this – and certainly, for all the skyscrapers, penthouses and palaces, it’s remarkable quite how un-aspirational it feels.
View image of (Credit: Alamy)
That’s in part down to the sheer miserableness of the characters, but the series also captures something ineffably dreary about luxury. “Wealthy people are not usually great aesthetes,” as Armstrong notes. “They live in places that look like five star hotels, and they’re really not focused on making beautiful stuff of their lives, so we try to reflect that.” (The joyless prize of the limitless choice afforded the super-rich is also nicely represented in a scene in the second series opener in which a raging Logan, having gathered the family at their Hamptons mansion, impulsively orders an expensive banquet that has been prepared to be scrapped in exchange for takeaway pizza: cue platters of lobster being scraped into the outdoor bins.) In order to dilute any inadvertent glamorisation, it was also decided to shoot it documentary style, complete with shaky cam and quick zooms – even though Armstrong has to admit that “it’s hard to shoot a helicopter that doesn’t look cool.”
An age of comi-tragedy
But perhaps the greatest challenge of speaking truth to monstrous male power is finding the right tone. The Loudest Voice, for example, retells the Ailes story as a portentous melodrama, complete with choppily-edited horror-style assault scenes. In doing so, it has a blunt force, but is unobservant about the man – and un-subversive as art.
By contrast, in Bitter Wheat, that old contrarian Mamet opts to reconfigure Weinstein’s downfall as a kind of boulevard comedy cum farce – with the thinly-veiled Weinstein character, movie producer Barney Fein, quipping about the biz before getting down to the behind-show business of assaulting a young actress. The result is too boring to be especially offensive, with a tired script made more so by John Malkovich’s enervated performance. But Mamet’s flippancy about the subject is so evident, his indifference to anything that has happened in the past two years (except as a means to bash liberal hypocrisy) so affected, you wonder why he bothered putting pen to paper at all.
If you don’t include the ludicrous and the absurd in your characterisation of rich and powerful people, then you’re telling a lie – Jesse Armstrong
Could it be the case that the most effective weapon in the current climate of conspicuous moral ugliness is neither humour nor deep seriousness but both at the same time? Certainly, that’s how Succession pitches itself, and it does so brilliantly. Within the pantheon of US TV dramas, it feels unique: combining an epic dramatic sweep with a caustic comedy of humiliation which will be familiar to any fans of Armstrong’s work on political sitcoms Veep and The Thick of It. From a man proudly announcing he has swallowed his own semen onwards, particular play is made with these characters’ bungled displays of machismo.
View image of (Credit: HBO)
But while its tone may be striking – and certainly confused some critics in early reviews – for Armstrong it’s an entirely natural idiom in which to write. “There’s that Billy Wilder quote: ‘If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny, or they’ll kill you.’ I think it’s a good quote, [but] I don’t subscribe to that point of view,” he says. “My view is that if you tell the truth, it will be funny. If you don’t include the ludicrous and the absurd in your characterisation of rich and powerful people, then you’re telling a lie, which helps [them] to keep their power really.”
Prebble agrees that the presence of comedy writers within the team, alongside straight-er drama writers like herself, has been key to its success. “What I’ve observed is that comedy writers are very comfortable with showing rank cowardice in characters in a way a lot of drama writers aren’t. I think a lot of drama writers are drawn to this idea there’s an innate heroism somewhere or a fight to overcome obstacles and [then characters] achieve their aim… Whereas comic writers are just obsessed with people failing to do things – particularly men… and when you take that sensibility into a drama about genuinely powerful men, what you end up with is something quite shocking, which is the truth of these people, rather than trying to frame them as interesting villains like Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.”
The cycle of abuse
But however they are characterised, there remains a nagging question over how much more airtime we should be giving these male egos, given they have controlled the cultural narrative for so long. It’s certainly easy to agree with the reviews of Bitter Wheat that have suggested a better play would have centred not on Mamet’s glib approximation of Weinstein, but his victim, or the world-weary female secretary who has endured working for him – and you can understand why no one is calling for a Trump biopic anytime soon. But Succession justifies its focus on these men in the detail with which it explores their pathology.
Maybe I’ve got an over-developed sympathy gland but I find it very easy to sink myself into their shoes – Jesse Armstrong
Monsters, after all, are not born, but created – and, when their impact is so great, it surely pays to inquire how. About as much as inquiry as we get in Bitter Wheat is Fein’s repeated self-piteous references to his apparently-repellent fatness, which play as nothing more than very obviously manipulative attempts to curry sympathy, in any case. Meanwhile in The Loudest Voice, there is brief mention of Ailes’ sadistic father, but it feels wedged in to provide some context that is otherwise lacking. By being rooted in family, however, Succession really gets to the heart of the matter: that is, the cycle of abuse which maintains the status quo.
View image of (Credit: Alamy)
In season one, we were drip-fed intimations of the trauma the Roys had suffered from generation to generation – a later episode offered the reveal of Logan’s profusely-scarred back while swimming, while in another we heard of his son Roman’s childhood experience of being repeatedly locked in a dog cage by his brother. But its portrait of an inherited male lovelessness deepens in season 2, as we really see how Logan preys on his children’s weakness: the way in which he is able to reduce the once-rebellious Kendall to a dead-eyed vassal is particularly bleak. For Armstrong, his depth of feeling for these characters was never in doubt: “we have talked for a long time about the nature of their upbringing, the forces that have created them. And you know, maybe I’ve got an over-developed sympathy gland but I find it very easy to sink myself into their shoes, once I feel like I’ve got the full nature of their background and impulses.”
For her part, Prebble has always been interested in hyper-masculine neuroses – and the way in which they drive global affairs. It was a subject that informed her 2010 play, Enron, as it will also her latest play, A Very Expensive Poison, about the 2006 murder of Russian whisteblower Alexander Litvinenko and the Putin regime, which is about to start its run at London’s Old Vic. “A lot of my work is interested in the way the vulnerability of men manifests itself as a sort of extreme covering up of that vulnerability,” as she puts it. “If you look at the childhood of Donald Trump and [then] look at the way that he treated Donald Trump Jr, you can see not just the cruelty but the complete inability to be present, vulnerable and emotionally honest.”
Men don’t know what men are like when men aren’t there – Lucy Prebble
It hardly needs saying, of course, that women writers should be central to our representation of terrible men. It may have a male-heavy ensemble, but Succession has an equal male/female split in its writers’ room – and that is key both to the mood of the team and nuance of the writing.
As Prebble says: “men don’t know what men are like when men aren’t there… lots of performative masculinity happens around other men but then disappears when they’re around women. Sometimes in quite sinister ways – in that they sort of use women to be vulnerable with and to carry their pain and their emotional baggage.” And not just women writers: what bodes well for the upcoming Lewinsky/Clinton drama is that Lewinsky herself is on board as a producer. Finally, the truth, in the cultural imagination, may out.
Succession Series 2 begins on 11 August on HBO in the US and 12 August on Sky Atlantic in the UK.
Love TV? Join BBC Culture’s TV fans on Facebook, a community for television fanatics all over the world.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.