'Succession' Boss Talks Pop-Cultural Inspirations and Surprising Link to 'Arrested Development'
HBO's Emmy-nominated bleak financial fable is set "mostly in bedrooms, boardrooms and the corporate world," says showrunner Jesse Armstrong, but the scheming family at the center of it brought plenty of out-of-the-box twists.
It's fitting that Jesse Armstrong, the showrunner of a searing satirical drama about media power brokers, has a measured and somewhat skeptical approach to the Emmy Awards. "They're curious, awards," the British creator tells THR. "You don't want to get too tied up in putting all your worth in the hands of the big world of awards, but on the other hand it's ever so nice to get your work recognized."
His HBO series, Succession, is nominated for five Emmys, including outstanding drama. Armstrong himself is credited on the episode nominated for writing — the season one finale — a nod he learned about from executive producer Frank Rich's assistant while on set shooting season two in Croatia.
That second season (which bowed Aug. 11) follows the show's Murdoch- and Redstone-like clan, the Roy family, after a failed takeover attempt — by CEO Logan Roy's (Brian Cox) son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) — of the family's sprawling business, which includes a cable news network, theme parks and rockets. Ahead of the show's sophomore bow, Armstrong spoke with THR about his pop-cultural inspirations, his learning curve as showrunner and the series' surprising link to Arrested Development.
What was the process on the first-season finale? Did you plan the end of the series at the beginning, or did it come about more gradually?
Obviously, you want a dramatic finale, and we had a couple of contenders, for the variety of drama. Especially for this type of show, which takes place mostly in bedrooms, boardrooms and the corporate world, it was an unusually vivid event. Early on in the writers room, in the first few weeks, I pitched the idea and we had a certain amount of trepidation about accommodating it in the show, but once we landed on it, it started to feel a bit immovable, and other character stuff started to fall in place around it. For this [second] season, too, I like to know where we're headed early on because it suggests a sort of unity to the ideas.
With Succession you're writing American characters for an American cable network. How do you approach bridging the differences between British and American humor for the show?
We have an Anglo-American writers room and we have all the cast, which has plenty of input, so I just write, write, write. It's quite an international family, and that's one of the advantages of writing these one-percent people, they're often quite international; it's not like I'm trying to write Roseanne. They're quite comfortable in London, New York, L.A., Sydney and Christchurch. But yeah, I find it a natural rhythm to write.
You've been asked quite a bit about the real-world media and business figures and events that have inspired Succession, but what about pop-cultural inspirations?
When I pitched it, I think one of my tongue-in-cheek versions of trying to get people to feel the tone was [the 1998 Danish film] Festen, as it's called in the U.K., or The Celebration, as it's called here. My pitch was "Festen meets Dallas." I thought it was interesting to be in the world of these rich people, as they're quite vivid and Dallas-y, but to mix that with the verite approach of that kind of — it's not quite docudrama what we do, but there's a connecting tissue between how [Adam] McKay shot the pilot and how we shot the season. Some people have felt the presence of real families being referenced, but one thing I hadn't caught is Arrested Development. I didn't see the parallels with the families before we did the show, but there are some.
What was that learning curve for showrunning Succession like?
It felt relatively smooth. I mean, it's daunting. You have to think about the resources and the talent you have available to you but not feel oppressed by them. I'd never worked on a show with this amount of resources and this wealth of talent, so you have to try to not be oppressed by that.
Will anything be changing for Succession now that HBO will produce shows for HBO Max?
Well, I don't know, we haven't chatted about another season, so I don't know, as far as I've experienced things.
On season two, what did Holly Hunter bring to the set that wasn't there previously?
When you see the show, it's an interesting role of a powerful media figure, and we needed somebody who could integrate with the cast where they're quite a genuine [addition] to the show. Anyone who watches the show or enjoys it will think we have a great cast. We needed somebody who could, from the first day, match up with all the great actors on the show. I think people will see she was able to do that right away.
Are you rooting for any Emmy nominees besides Succession to win in their categories in September?
We have a lot of Veep alumni on the show including Frank Rich [and writer-producers] Georgia Pritchett, Tony Roche and Jon Brown. So that feels like a production we've followed, and I'm very fond of the show and Julia [Louis-Dreyfus], so I'm rooting for them.
Were there any notable snubs for you besides any categories related to Succession?
There's so much TV around now that everything can't get awarded. I'm a fan of [Unbreakable] Kimmy Schmidt. [Also] I thought A Very English Scandal could have more recognition.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A bracingly acerbic satire of a Murdoch-esque media empire, Jesse Armstrong's Succession wowed critics when it premiered in June 2018, but its appeal has thus far been limited to left-leaning viewers on either coast who are eager to find amusement in the woes that come with generational wealth. Fortunately for HBO, that group also largely sums up the TV Academy voting body! Succession is the favorite among freshmen, but can that niche enthusiasm topple the Emmy heft behind network sibling Game of Thrones' final run? Don't bet the bank on it. — MICHAEL O'CONNELL
How Fact Becomes Fiction
Logan Roy still runs his media empire at 80 and plays his children (Kendall, Roman and Shiv) against one another. Rupert Murdoch, 88, remains Fox Corp. chairman after his kids wrestled for control (Lachlan is exec chairman of Fox Corp., James left the company, and Elisabeth is a media exec in the U.K.).
In the series' opening episode, Logan suffers a brain hemorrhage after his birthday celebration and his children rush to his bedside. In January 2018, a few months before his 87th birthday, Murdoch fell while on Lachlan's yacht, resulting in broken vertebrae and a spinal hematoma. His children all rushed to his bedside.
In episode seven, Logan arranges a group therapy session with his children and their spouses at a ranch in New Mexico. The gathering does not go well. Several years ago, Murdoch arranged a group therapy session with his children and their spouses in London as well as a retreat at the Murdoch ranch in Australia.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.