Succession is As Much A Legacy Child As Any of The Roy Children Are
And Why It Doesn’t Deserve to Be Mentioned in the Same Breath as the great Drama of HBO — Or The Best Peak TV
had this theory for a while, pertaining to many HBO series but Succession in particular. I truly believe that if Succession aired on Showtime or Netflix or any other network or service than HBO, it would have anywhere near the critical acclaim, rabid fan base, and most of all, awards cache that it currently has. I think Succession, like the Roy clan, is a series that trades fundamentally on the legacy and power of its past than anything resembling the true quality of the product.
This is not a tinfoil hat theory. In the two decades since The Sopranos became the first cable series to win Best Drama and the present, more HBO dramas have been nominated and won Emmys in this category than any other network. It’s not remotely a close question. HBO has won Best Drama eight times in twenty years — The Sopranos twice, Game of Thrones four times, and Succession twice. Every year since 1999 at least one HBO drama has been nominated in this category — some of them very qualified, some very thin choices.
For all the talk about how the Golden Age has expanded the number of options for television, the second place network in this regard is AMC, which won six times in seven years — four times for Mad Men, twice for Breaking Bad. With the exception of Showtime for Homeland, that’s it for cable. Nor has their overall been much variety in the nominees. FX is occasionally invited to the party, but has never won, USA was invited once for Mr. Robot, and BBC America for Killing Eve. And as much as streaming was supposed to change the face of television, Netflix has only won once — for The Crown in 2021. Hulu’s win for The Handmaid’s Tale occurred in a year Game of Thrones was ineligible.
Broadcast television clouded the picture for comedy for much of the 2000s, but it’s worth noting this was pretty much the field for HBO for more than a decade, first with The Larry Sanders Show, then Sex and The City, and finally Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage. Not until 2010 did another cable network manage to crash the party with Nurse Jackie in 2010 — a series many questioned was a comedy at all. HBO has had a nominated comedy in the Best Comedy since 1997, and there has been little room for other services to prevail until the last five years. And it’s worth noting that some of the major contenders over the last two years — The Flight Attendant and Hacks — have been on an HBO streaming service.
The separation of Best TV movie and Limited Series in 2014 was more or less done to stop the chokehold HBO had on the category for over two decades. Even that has not led to more variety in the recipients of the latter category: HBO has won in four different times since then, and FX had won three other times. Netflix’s triumph for The Queen’s Gambit in 2012, only came after HBO had taken three of the acting awards (for Mare of Easttown) and Best Writing (for I May Destroy You.) No matter the quality of the other nominees, whether they be American Crime, When They See Us or Escape at Dannemora, being an HBO product seems to be enough to put you over the top.
I’m not arguing that HBO series are necessarily inferior than so many other TV series in the age of Peak TV. What I am arguing is that for more than fifteen years, even inferior HBO shows can find a way to receive nominations over more qualified series anywhere else. This can be true even when it comes within the network itself. I believe True Blood wasn’t nearly as good as Big Love but it got nominated more often. David Simon has always been a better writer for HBO than Aaron Sorkin, but Tremé was ignored and The Newsroom won Emmys. The final season of In Treatment was utterly glorious and a masterpiece of subtlety but all the attention that year was paid to Lovecraft Country.
And this pertains to any aspect of a series. The final episode of Lost was one of the most divisive series finales in history and almost certainly affected its chances at that year’s Emmys. The final episode of Game of Thrones is considered one of the worst series finales in history, even by the die-hard fans. Most of whom thought the last season was a disaster as well. Yet in 2019, Game of Thrones still dominated the Best Drama Emmys. It’s not like there weren’t better contenders that year — Better Call Saul, Pose, This Is Us, Killing Eve — but it was a legacy award more than anything else and hell, it was an HBO show.
An HBO series, you see, has this aura that is based on being the first and breaking ground early and that has carried many inferior series and their actors over the top well after the ground was broken and the moment should have passed. But even after the groundbreakers stopped coming, critics and awards are far more willing to give the mark of excellence to an HBO series just based on where it came from. This would be an egregious sin by any series but is particularly galling when you consider both Succession and what makes it difference not just from the HBO series that pioneered the way for it, but almost all of the truly magnificent dramas of Peak TV ever since.
The three series that were truly foundational in putting not only HBO but Peak TV on the map were The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood. All of these were groundbreaking in many ways — the violence and profanity at the core, centering the shows on characters with no moral compass, the talent that we saw both in front of and behind the camera. But what has made these series stand the test of time in a way I just can’t see Succession doing is that they were fundamentally about more than the surface. By telling the story of a mafia family, David Chase was telling a larger story about modern day America and how today’s generation always will make the choices that take the least effort no matter what the damage is to others and even as their power wanes. By telling the story of the drug war in Baltimore, David Simon showed us how badly all of the major institutions in America have declined to the point that America itself may be beyond saving. By telling the story of a lawless camp in the midst of a gold boom, David Milch told the story of the symbolism and meaning of law and community — as well as how the violence and the bloodshed of the individual pales to the damage that unbridled capitalism will do the world.
(Deadwood also featured Brian Cox in its third season who near the end of the show’s run had this exchange with Al Swearengen discussing a ruthless billionaire capitalist:
“If the fucker didn’t have shareholders, you could murder him in his sleep.”
Cox: Serpent’s teeth, shareholders. Ten thousand would rise to take his place.”
Side note: Brian, there was more truth about wealth in that line than anything Logan Roy has said in three seasons on Succession. Not to mention David Milch used obscenities more poetically. Back to discussion.)
Those who defend Succession might argue that all of these ideas are played out in a fashion at Waystar Royco, just among the rich and powerful rather than the poor. Even if you agree with this argument, there is fundamentally missing from Succession that was not just presence in the pioneering series but the best of television in the two decades — consequences. None of the three David’s ever made us forget that the consequences of the failures of the institutions and the unbridled ‘American Dream’ always had a body count and left wreckage behind.
The best series in the aftermath of the Revolution would demonstrate that, even if the viewer wasn’t as always aware of it. We were fundamentally aware of the body count that Walter White was leaving behind as a cost of becoming Heisenberg throughout Breaking Bad. And while we rarely took into account the fact that Walter White was building his fortune on the backs of drug addiction, the series never quite let us forget that — most notably in a second season episode where Jesse goes to collect a debt in a den of addicts and becomes a firsthand witness of the cost of what his drug is doing to people. In its later seasons, Homeland would often lay bare the consequences of the War on Terror in ways both direct and subtle — in the final season Carrie, who has returned to Afghanistan with an equivalent from Russian intelligence, finds that one of the areas her colleague is using is the site of a drone strike she called in which accidentally killed dozens of innocent civilians. Mr. Robot, a series about a vigilante who wants to take down the one percent managed to lodge a major attack on the financial institutions of America — and the country spent the next two seasons struggling to overcome the horrors that he had unleashed. This was true even of series that I had problems with — Scandal focused so much energy on Olivia Pope crisis managing the problems of the Washington elite that in the classic ‘The Lawn Chair’, when she was called in to handle a crisis involving a police shooting that she realized just how meaningless her actions were to the general public — and how she couldn’t ‘handle’ the institutional racism that affects so much of our country.
Far too much television in the last decade has been focused on the bad behavior of the rich and powerful rather than the consequences of their struggles. Succession is not the worst offender of this even among HBO dramas (I’ll get to that in a bit) but it is more important because unlike so many of them, it is about an issue that should be significant to the country and the world and yet the writers don’t seem to think its relevant.
The Roys are clearly modeled after the Murdoch family — Jesse Armstrong and the other writers have acknowledged as much — and even if they weren’t, the world is painfully aware by now the damage that a mass media conglomerate can do the country. But unless I’ve been missing some vital points about Succession, none of the Roys have a vision for what will happen to Waystar when they take over it. And the series has acknowledged in subplots that there’s little difference in what the Roys truly hope to achieve with their power and wealth. Throughout the series the family has been backing a Presidential candidate who it is more or less implied is moronic and has fascist tendencies. None of the Roys seem bothered or even care about the consequences — all that matters is what is best for them and the company. America doesn’t matter at all.
So let’s be clear what Succession is: it is a series about the fight for a company that has for half a century been built on destroying its competitors and anyone who stands in its way in order to increase wealth and power. Everyone in the family is wealthy beyond their wildest dreams; they do not need any more money. No one has a vision for the company going forward. None of them are qualified to run it. And none of them have anything resembling empathy for their own family, much less anyone else in the world. No matter who ends up taking over the company, none of them lose in the sense that most other characters on television have in power struggles. They will still be as wealthy, powerful, and loathed as they were before. The real losers are the American people and maybe every institution that the country holds dear. The only real way this could end horribly is if any of the Roys go to prison for the horrible things they have done. As we saw when Kendall revealed Logan’s complicity in a major scandal in Season 2, that clearly didn’t happen and its unlikely it will in the final season.
Sadly, this has become a trend of far too many series in the last decade among peak TV. Game of Thrones may have been the biggest offender in that sense. It may have been able to hide that fact with dragons, magic, incest and tons of violence but it does not change that when the series ended, for all of the bloodshed and death, nothing fundamentally had changed for the people of Westeros. Many were disappointed by the conclusion of Game of Thrones; a smart few realized at the end of the day it was because all of this bloodshed wasn’t going to make anyone in the Seven Kingdoms any freer.
Ozark, another ‘great series’ of this era, was much the same. The Byrdes spent the better part of four seasons trying to get out from under the grip of a major drug cartel and doing everything they could to walk away with their freedom near the end. They left a trail of bodies, many of them innocent, and in the finale had no problem leaving their most loyal follower to be murdered. Despite the vast talent of the cast, it was hard to find any sympathy for them because of the fact that the only consequence was they seemed to have to bear their guilt of their actions.
And in the era of comedy, one has to list Veep. I have to say that even before the Trump administration, I never truly saw the appeal of this show the way so many critics and audiences did. All it seemed to show for seven seasons was that politicians are horrible people with no empathy who have no joy in their lives. At the end of the day, Selina Meyer was essentially a woman who was willing to destroy America in order to run it. What is supposed to be entertaining about that?
The latter is key to this in that both and Succession came from the minds of Armando Iannucci, who appears to be making the same series over and over. All of his shows apparently seem to be variations that the wealthy and powerful are unpleasant people who hate everybody and will do anything to be at the top of the food chain. This is hardly revelatory and in the case of Veep and Succession doesn’t seem to count as entertainment. Apparently the reason we are supposed to love these show is because of the vast array of talent using variations of every conceivable profanity to insult each other while nothing happens over entire seasons. When nothing of interest happened for most of Season 4 of The Sopranos, critics and audiences were appalled. When nothing really happens for almost the entire first three seasons of Succession, somehow that’s the reason its such a great show.
In a way I already know how Succession’s final season will end — with lots of Emmy nominations in July. Because it’s like I said: HBO is the Waystar Royco of Peak TV. It was powerful and significant once (justifiably, I will allow) but now the next generation is taking spots away from more qualified series on lesser networks based more on their parent company than their actual quality. In a sense it doesn’t even matter if the series ends badly or even if the final season is terrible. Everyone hated the last season of Game of Thrones, particularly the last episode. Yet when it was time for the Emmys, it still received thirty nominations and won ten awards. Part of this may have been more due to the nature of the institution that gave them, but a lot of them is for the same reason the Roys never pay for their actions no matter how horrible they are to each other or the world.
HBO controls the narrative. Succession is a great series, no matter what critics or audiences actually do think. There might very well be better shows that have aired in the 2022–2023 season — it’s hard for anyone to look at the final season of Better Call Saul and not consider it living up to the hype that Succession just doesn’t. But that may not change many voters opinions. I hope to be proven wrong in the months to come but I am a realist. Succession is not well-written, groundbreaking or revolutionary but its on HBO and that’s gives it the influence among the elite that the Roys will have no matter who ends up running the company.