The Overrated Series: Why So Many Fans and Critics Worship Certain Series — And What That Says About TV
Succession, Part 1: Nothing New certainly from HBO
As someone who has watched television with a critical eye for nearly twenty years, I have a gotten a clear sense about series that are regarded far too highly by critics, audiences and the awards industry. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, most notably with Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale. So I figure it’s time to make it a recurring feature. Just because we are in the era of Peak TV doesn’t necessarily make all shows great ones.
I’m going to start with a show I’ve gone into considerable detail about over the past couple of months: Succession. It’s hard to argue that it’s starting to transcend the medium: highbrow magazines like The New Yorker have been writing about it frequently and Politico just did a longer spread on it. What has always been strange about the series is that people seem to love the series even though they agree all the characters are horrendous people. Indeed, the most recent issue of TV Guide actually Jeered the series saying that it was a brilliant show but that the characters were reprehensible. The Politico article actually said that this was partly by design at the level of producers and as a message — that the creators want to make to make it fundamentally that the Roy family, who has wealth we can’t comprehend, is somehow more miserable than the rest of us and indeed that’s the main reason for the series popularity — the world hates the rich so much we think seeing that they’re so miserable makes us feel better than a class revolt.
Leaving aside the political ramifications of this, I’m going to center this article on why this doesn’t make Succession great television, why it is a fundamental step backwards for Peak TV in general and HBO in particular, and why this trend is actually troubling for television.
Let’s start with the basic tenet that even the fans of the series agree on: there is nobody to root for Succession. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in the age of the Antihero which has basically formed the Golden Age. There is, however, a very big difference between the great series of the Golden Age and Succession: all of the characters in the best dramas — from the killers and rapists of Oz and The Sopranos, to the people caught in the broken justice system of Baltimore in The Wire, to the Rockefeller Republicans at the center of the Age of Aquarius in Mad Men — are at the most middle class and in most of the cases struggling to survive. You may not like most of the characters in these series, but at your core you can understand the misery that follows them; they are trapped in a fundamentally broken system that symbolized the end of the American Dream. Now consider everybody in Succession — not just the Roy family, but everybody around them. They are literally the Masters of the Universe: they control the media, they will dodge the justice system, and we’ve seen in various episodes that they are controlling democracy. They run the world, and they’re even more miserable that Tony Soprano and Don Draper ever were. Now maybe that’s cathartic to so many of us unlucky poor, but it sure as hell isn’t entertaining. And honestly, it’s more depressing. If you can’t be happy if you can afford private jets for every member of the family, what is going to make you happy?
Now I know that so many of the dramas in Peak TV are dark and depressing, but they’re not oppressive in their darkness. There’s a lot of different examples to focus on in Peak TV as counters, but in this part I’m going to focus on the great three dramas of HBO as they are the most relevant: The Sopranos, The Wire, and in particular, Deadwood.
The Sopranos was a dark and violent series that showed people at their core would always rather do the easy thing rather than change — in this series, the easy thing was always violence. (This is in part why I was so resistant to it in the series’ original run.) But the series was always willing to shake up the format in a certain way, and it always made clear just how low at the bottom food chain the characters were. The clearest pictures of this came when he viewed Christopher’s attempts to break into Hollywood and he saw just how gluttonous actor’s lives were compared to mob bosses.
The Wire believed at its core America was broken at every level: the criminal justice system, blue collar work, politics, education and the media itself. But as bleak as the message was, it never stopped being entertaining: there’s always been a dark comic backdrop that otherwise would have made the series unbearable. Succession has a sense of humor to, but always layered at someone else’s misfortune. And it’s worse because it’s inevitably family that it’s directed at.
Deadwood actually has the most direct link to Succession, one in casting choices, one in roles. As anyone who watched the series remembers, the major villain throughout the series was capitalism in the face of George Hearst. This was made clear slowly in Season 2 when Hearst’s representative, the geologist Francis Wolcott appeared on scene as Hearst’s acolyte. (Creator David Milch says the character appeared so that he could prep himself to write Hearst in Season 3.) Wolcott is a man of privilege and a greater threat to the series than civilization, not simply because he is a psychopath (in the middle of Season 2 he murders three prostitutes) but because of whom he represents. He knows he is untouchable and therefore considers all life disposable. The characters know this: at one point when they are deciding what to do about Wolcott, Cy Tolliver a monster who thought he could control Wolcott simply says: “No one who works for George Hearst can spend a night in jail.” When Hearst does arrive on the scene in Season 2 finale, he is appalled by Wolcott’s crime not because of their nature, but because of what the implication may be for him. Wolcott knows this and in the final minutes of the episode commits suicide to spare his lord — a sacrificial lamb in a far more direct manner than Succession is willing to do.
Season 3 is dominated by the actions of Hearst, played magnificently by Gerald McRaney. Compared to him Wolcott is a minor figure; Hearst wants to bend everybody in town to his will, ostensibly because he wants to control the gold claim of Alma Garrett but mostly because it’s the only thing that makes him feel alive. Hearst sees himself above all humanity: he is introduced as ‘Boy-The-Earth-Talks-Too’ and he only seems to care from gold, not because of the monetary value but it makes him feel bigger than the mere humans he has to interact with. He makes it clear none of the people in this camp are worth his time and therefore little more than figures he can decide who lives or dies. This is true even to people he professes to care about: the only person he shows any affection to is Aunt Lou, his African-American cook, but when her son tries to hustle him and she begs for his life, he has absolutely no problem not only having her son killed, but berated her for thinking she had the right ask for mercy.
Brian Cox had a starring role in the third season of Deadwood as impresario of the new theater company Jack Langrishe and indeed had many scenes in which he either had interaction with Hearst or helped plot with his friend Al Swearengen on how to outmaneuver him.
(Near the end of the season when the action is approaching a climax — or as those of us who remember it, anticlimax — Al and Jack have a memorable exchange:
AL: “If the bastard didn’t have shareholders, you could murder him in his sleep.”
JACK: “Serpent’s teeth, shareholders. Ten thousand would rise to take his place.”
It’s hard not to think of the action of the recent of Succession where the Roys are wondering about a corporate takeover, and not remember that quote.)
It is likely that Cox took many of his cues on how to play Logan Roy from his time on Deadwood with McRaney. That being said I still prefer Hearst’s portrayal in general because he is far blunter and more direct about how big a monster he is and how separated from the reality we mere mortals inhabit. Indeed, the series was actually direct about it both in dialogue and the director’s cut.
When he has finished taking possession of Alma Garret’s claim (after murdering her husband) and listens to Seth’s calling him a bully, Hearst says: “I am listening to a conversation you can not here.” In the commentary, Milch says: “This is what Rupert Murdoch says every morning.” The link is actually made direct in the dialogue when Hearst, having received what he considers ‘unfair’ treatment in the local paper says that he’ll have his people ‘make another one to lie the other way.” In essence, he has created the Hearst media empire out of pure spite. It doesn’t take a genius to see the direct links to Logan Roy and Waystar in these comments.
So basically the only difference between George Hearst in 1877 and Logan Roy a century and a half later is one lives in a more beautiful place. Given what we know about how George treating his wife and son, he probably wasn’t a better father either. So there is nothing new of different between the two. Except Deadwood made the very deliberate choice to show that as horrible as characters like Tolliver and Swearengen were, they were also minor villains compared to Hearst — and its hard to argue they weren’t more clear-sighted and at least in Swearengen’s case, inspired more loyalty.
And maybe I’m being biased because I’ve written about the series extensively, the dialogue was far better. It was, if anything more profane than Succession is, but it was infinitely more poetic and even the insults could be used more affectionately than Succession ever has. There may be more imagination in the putdowns in Succession, but I’ve rarely laughed at them as much as I did watching Wu, the Celestial who only seems to know three words in English — two of which were ‘Swearengen’ and ‘cocksucker’.
So putting all of this into consideration there is nothing new or groundbreaking about Succession in comparison to its groundbreaking dramas of the past. And as I will make clear in the next part of this article, there is a much better drama about a billionaire and his corporation that has, until recently, had it all over Succession in the present.