Critic's Notebook: How 'Succession' Quickly Became One of TV's Best Comedies (or Dramas)

The HBO series' often hilarious first season showcased a tremendous cast and Jesse Armstrong's scathing writing.
Colin Hutton/HBO
'Succession'

[This post contains spoilers for the first season finale of HBO's Succession, but mostly in the second half of the article. The first half is trying to convince you to check Succession out, if you haven't already.]

At The Hollywood Reporter, our staff is normally fairly unified in our collective opinions about things, all the better to maintain elfin harmony in our particular cookie-producing tree.

However, in recent weeks, an internecine battle has sprung up over HBO's summer series Succession.

On one side, you find the advocates who argue that Succession is a drama. Those partisans agree that the series about corporate and familial malfeasance is loaded with cutting one-liners, but they point to the hourlong running time and the depth of the emotional pain the characters often seem burdened with.

On the other side, you find those of us who protest that if dramas can sometimes be half-hours, comedies surely can run an hour, and that with his Veep and The Thick of It pedigree, Succession creator Jesse Armstrong is obviously making the blackest (though also racially whitest) of black comedies. We agree that although the anxiety and psychological unraveling featured in the show can unquestionably be both grounded and impactful, Succession is its best self when the members of the media dynastic Roy family are in the same room slicing each other to bits with some vulgar and eviscerating dialogue. And when that occurs, the show makes me laugh harder than almost anything on television.

Ultimately, it will be for HBO to determine whether they want to stick to Emmy's absurd time-based genre categorization system and default to drama contention or petition for inclusion in comedy fields. The network's valiant struggle to promote the show when it premiered fills me with skepticism that whichever choice they make will help this niche-y gem get wider awards penetration, but go with God!

The important thing about our office bickering isn't that we're split on an antiquated and binary genre designation, but that Succession stirs up our passions. It had a below-the-radar premiere, will doubtlessly alienate many viewers and has ratings bordering on miniscule. It's also one of the best TV shows of the summer, and of 2018.

One thing I've seen and heard in conversation about Succession is that beloved threat/promise that "it gets better."

I'm split on that. The first half of the first season of Succession is very good. The second half of the first season of Succession is spectacular. Yet "It gets better" is a statement that usually leads to questions like, "Can I just jump in at Episode X?" To that question, my answer is an unequivocal, "Hell no. Why would you jump into a 10-episode TV season any time other than the beginning of said season?"

The initial episodes of Succession may not be as rollicking and effectively chaotic as what the show became at its best. That doesn't mean they're bad. Upon my first viewing of the pilot, I felt like the show wasn't always clear on its tone. Upon my second viewing of the pilot, I felt like, in actuality, the show had been plenty clear in its tone. I was the one who wasn't instantly sure. It's a tough show because each member of the Roy clan is awful. They're horrible, wealthy people in a TV landscape that doesn't lack for horrible, wealthy people. The thing that's hard to recognize, at least immediately, is that they're horrible in wildly different ways and with wildly different real and human insecurities as underpinnings. The reason the second half of the season works is because each character is so specific and his or her aspirations have been so well constructed to cause friction with the others.

Once the characters are there, you can put them at a Thanksgiving dinner, at a group therapy session, at a wedding rehearsal, at an opulent sex club in Prague or at a board meeting and you know that the way they're going to respond to each other will arise from their Roy DNA. Even after 10 episodes, almost none of them are sympathetic in-the-balance, yet in the moment they're all capable of making me care about them. They want the things they want so sincerely.

So much of what Armstrong understands about making characters work without pandering presumably comes from his work on British TV, where there's much less of that American obsession with making us "like" characters in simple ways. I don't "like" any of the characters in Succession. I probably wouldn't want to spend more than an hour a week with any of them. But I'd definitely spend an hour a week with them all year long. I love them all and I love them without caring anymore whether WayStar buys local television or whether any of the Roys are better or worse for the family business or even without caring if Succession is trying to "say" anything about the media industry in 2018 or making veiled observations about the Murdoch clan or anything.

[Here's where I want to talk a little about the finale, so the spoilers will kick in.]

Sunday night's season finale "Nobody Is Ever Missing" was not the best evidence for my Succession-is-a-comedy court case.

Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Tom's (Matthew Macfadyen) wedding party was certainly an opportunity for much mockery and family teasing and derision. If you're just looking for one-off bits of crazy humor, Connor's (Alan Ruck) abrupt decision to run for president was rather perfect, the least professionally motivated of the Roys deciding that the only job he actually wanted was Leader of the Free World. There are a half-dozen trenchant one-liners in the finale that are probably better than you'll hear in any full season of any sitcom this year.

But most of the finale was not about making you laugh. It was about making you recognize (not for the first time) how amazing this entire cast is.

Jeremy Strong's last 15 minutes of the episode — basically dialogue-free on a show that's dominated by dialogue — was impeccable as Kendall's personal roller-coaster saw him go from nervously anticipating the professional decapitation of his father to a Chappaquidick-esque tragedy to his own emasculation in a matter of moments. Perhaps more than any of the other Succession stars, Strong is the actor I was unsure about after the pilot, but here he was in the finale holding his own with the bombastic Brian Cox at his most fearsome. Kendall might have wilted under that paternal onslaught. Strong did not.

Also getting a finale roller-coaster was Kieran Culkin's Roman, in an even more condensed time window. Also delivered wordlessly, Roman's reaction to the explosion of the satellite launch he accelerated as an inexplicable wedding tribute to Shiv was a font of ghoulish giggles, as was his reaction to skating potential charges of manslaughter, complete with a superb punchline.

The truth-telling wedding night confrontation between Tom and Shiv, plus Tom's subsequent showdown with Ashley Zukerman's Nate, featured a great callback to his parents' wine contributions. My initial Succession review got a little hung up on whether Macfadyen nailed an accent tied to Tom's Minnesota roots (it doesn't). Even then, I was already a fan of what emerged as an Emmy-worthy performance blending obliviousness, insecurity, darkness and optimism in a potent brew.

Kendall's chat with Greg (Nicholas Braun) capped Greg's first season arc, perhaps the show's clearest, and featured a welcome "Greg the Egg" callback. Through the whole season, the Roys felt like an authentic family because of their shared history and the sense that every childhood slight and adolescent disagreement could be fodder for grown-up tension.

If the show is about the consequences of awful or strained child-rearing and upbringing, the finale pushes the characters toward even bigger consequences.

The idea that we won't get follow-up for another year is sad, but that leaves a long time for viewers to discover this special comedy.

Or drama.

Whatever.

Just watch Succession.