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HBO’s Succession premiered to little fanfare in June — but the series about a dysfunctional media family has undoubtedly picked up steam throughout its 10-episode run, which culminates with Sunday night’s dramatic finale.
While introducing the network’s programming president Casey Bloys at the Television Critics’ Association press tour at the end of July, HBO exec Quentin Schaffer noted that while Amy Adams drama Sharp Objects has received rave reviews, critics are increasingly proclaiming Succession the “show of the summer.”
The critical favor comes as a surprise to series creator Jesse Armstrong — a British comedy writer best known for working on Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show and with Armando Iannucci on political satire In the Thick Of It — who says that he’s stayed away from reading what’s been written about the show because he’s still too close to it. Luckily, writers he’s working with have filled him in a bit.
“I wouldn’t have necessarily known that was how it would go,” says Armstrong, who is currently writing the show’s second season. (Succession was renewed for season two shortly after its premiere.) “It’s a show that has an unusual tone and I’m very happy about that, but maybe that presents a certain amount of, like, ‘Hold on. Should I be laughing?’ Some people have asked me that sometimes and I’m like, ‘Yeah, no, definitely!'”
The show, which counts Adam McKay as an executive producer and director, was birthed out of Armstrong’s interest in media conglomerates and the families that run them (think: Murdochs, Redstones). Ahead of the first season’s finale on Sunday, Armstrong talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the show’s delicate balance of comedy and drama, the media moguls who inspired the Roy family in the series and what’s in store for the second season.
I’m hoping you can settle an office debate of ours. Is Succession a comedy or a drama?
No, I’m not going to solve that. [Laughs] No way. I’m glad it’s a matter for debate. If the show had a voice, it would refuse to say. We’re not unaware of it. In the writer’s room, we spend a good deal of time talking about what’s funny. The shows that I love — like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad — could also be described as comedies in a way. And not every plotline that comes out of a comedic place necessarily expresses itself in scenes that are going to make you laugh loads. But there’s usually an energy — a twist — to the approach which you might call comic.
When it comes to awards consideration, though, you do have to pick a lane.
I will leave that probably to my friends at HBO, or you can declare it what you think it should be. Maybe that will be an issue, but I don’t mind. Certainly from one point of view, I think of it as a drama in the scope of what we’re trying to write. We know it needs weight. And certainly in the finale, there are events in there that are not put in a comedy.
How did you know that you wanted to end the season the way you did in the finale episode?
I think we had that particular dramatic set of events up on the board early on. I think I pitched it to the room as like, well, do you think we can accommodate an event like this in this show, given the somewhat comic tone and the kind of cool attitude we take to our characters? Will people care about this stuff happening? And it just always felt right in a kind of musical, symphonic, this-is-where-we’re-heading kind of way. I don’t know how audiences will respond to it, but when I watched it in the edit, it felt right to me in a way. It’s difficult to describe in words, but it feels like a natural place for things to be going.
When did you really start working on the show in earnest?
I’m really bad at dates. I remember that we did the read-through — it was memorable — of the pilot that Adam McKay directed in New York City on Election Day 2016. So that was memorable. [Laughs.] But I had a relationship with Frank Rich, [with whom] I develop things, and HBO. They were my dream home for it — and they picked it up.
You used to be involved in Veep, yes?
I worked on it a tiny bit. I was very busy, but I was heavily involved with The Thick Of It [with Armando Iannucci] in the U.K. So I came over and did one episode in the first season because I’m such a big fan of Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] and they were kind enough to say, “You can come over and do one.” I haven’t done anything since then.
Have you done much U.S. TV beside that?
No, not a lot of U.S. So it was a big deal, doing the show.
How is the appetite different here in the U.S. for content compared to what you’re used to in the U.K.?
Well, HBO is probably different from most other places, I sense. They — and this is not sort of normal showbiz baloney — they’ve just been really, really, brilliantly supportive. They’re not scared to give you a big note, but it’s not like 12 pages of, “Maybe this, maybe that.” It’s like, “This is great. Keep on going with these thoughts,” or, very occasionally, “We think there’s a problem here. What do you think? Let’s have a phone call.” So they were really fantastic, from a creative point of view.
What made you want to make a show like this?
It came out of a bunch of things, creatively, thinking about power and why the world is the way it is politically and culturally. I knew a good deal about Rupert Murdoch, who I wrote a nonfiction-fiction faction kind of weird to play-like thing many years ago about. Then I’d been watching The Jinx, the documentary about Robert Durst. And I started reading more about moguls and the Trumps and some of the Redstones and Disney wars. I had just marinated myself in a bit of stew of rich, powerful families, especially media families. And I thought, there’s some similarities between some of these people: The American media landscape, obviously with the Robertses, the Comcast Roberts, the Mercers, the Smiths who owned the Sinclair Group, who only came later to prominence. It’s not just one of these families around, there are a lot of them — and they’re quite important in making the world we live in.
How much personal experience have you had in this world?
As a human being, it’s not my world. I don’t come from a background that would naturally take me into those spheres. I guess as a TV writer, I’ve met network channel controllers. But I’ve never rubbed shoulders with these moguls. But I did work in politics early in my career, but I was always very junior in that world as well, though I guess I’ve had a sense of what it feels like to be around powerful people.
What is the makeup of your writers room like? Do you have scribes who have this experience first-hand?
When I was putting it together, it was always talent, the stuff I loved that I’d read or seen of people’s work. That came first. I was keen to have — since I’m British — Americans in the writers room. In some ways, people who know what it’s like to be in an interesting family dynamic. If you can talk about what it’s like to have a powerful father or an absent mother or a sibling relationship, what it’s like to be a first child, a second child, a third child, a stepchild. That was more useful than getting a lot of people who’ve been hedge funds managers in the room. I mean, I would’ve taken them, but I don’t think we had it. We haven’t got anyone in the room whose background is of this world, really. But we did then fill our lives with consultants and people who do know the world intimately from the reporting.
Who are some of those consultants, and how did they help shape the show?
Most of them are on the credits, though we did have some lunches and people who came in to the room who aren’t named — but it wasn’t a huge part of our research. Our research was mainly reading open source stuff, like biographies. Merissa Marr, who’s an ex-Wall Street Journal reporter who covered the Redstones and media world — she was great. Doug Schoen, who did politics, and Bill Cohan, who gave us another angle on business. And Derek Blasberg, who’s kind of a social writer as well. We had lots of people who we’d send out to for a smell check. And Frank Rich, obviously, is great on politics and culture. We had a lot of cover whenever we were unsure about whether we were getting it right.
And have you started the writers room for season two yet? You ended the first season in a way where you have a lot of a possibilities for the upcoming season.
We have. We’ve been working away. That wasn’t foremost in my thoughts when we did it. But it is a decent thing to start talking about on your first day in the writers room [Laughs.]
How would you tease where you hope to head in the second season?
We’ve got a very early shape, but it could change. I think we’ll end up coming through on this, but my thought was that we’ve got this big company that we’ve set up with cruise lines and theme parks and a news channel and a bunch of other channels. And I think if people are interested in going on the journey with us, we could go into the weeds a little bit, as long as we keep the character and family interrelationships, which are the heart of the show. As long as we keep those going, people will find it interesting to see how the theme park runs, and the news channel and some other divisions of the company. That’s one initial thought.
How does the merger mania going on in media right now influence the series?
It’s hopefully in the DNA of the show. It’s a succession story, and the very dramatic succession is who will take over from this media mogul. But then there’s another hint from the first episode at another succession going on, which is, yeah, these are the big news companies for the last half century — but they are under massive strain. I mean, they’re still incredibly influential with huge market capitalization, but they’re going to start being dwarfed, or they are already dwarfed, by the new operators. Netflix and Apple are knocking at their door, and then we can see these media consolidations in response to that. So that’s the world we’re in, and this show is, I hope, very interested in the real world, so we will be reflecting that.
When you hear about real-life stories from your consultants, do you have to fictionalizethem a bit before you put them in the show? Are there any legal concerns?
I don’t think we’ve ever done something which has been so close to the world that we’ve been worried about that. Certainly the HBO lawyers have never said that. We read really widely and sometimes we might take the spine of a deal, but usually it gets bent out of all recognition. The Redstones’ acquisition of Paramount, that famous kind of bidding war, was very vivid to me. And we ended up turning that into the — and the other writers might not even be aware of this — but that was the germ of when in the first episode, the eldest son, Kendall, is going after this more edgy, hip media property. So I think that’s the beauty, and sometimes pain, of a writers room: whatever idea you go in with gets kicked around so much, by the time it comes back, it’s unrecognizable. And that’s usually all for the best.
Were these always the main characters in your head from the start?
We didn’t make any changes from the pilot. You get that thing of writing towards voices a bit more through the season. But there were no big surprises.
Have you heard any rumors about any of these media moguls or their family members watching the show yet?
No, I haven’t. [Laughs.]
Is Will Ferrell also involved in the show or just via the production company?
More via the production company.
And what has Adam McKay’s involvement has been throughout the season?
Adam has stayed close. He was off making a movie after the pilot, but he’s helped create the tone of the show by directing the pilot the way he did and helping cast it. He’s got a great feel for the show. I’ve always run stuff past him to make sure he feels I haven’t gone crazy in the writers room. He’s got a great big ideas sensibility, so he’s a well of inspiration and he’s just quite swashbuckling and is like, “Let’s do this,” or, “You should go over there.” And sometimes it doesn’t work, but often it does. So he’s been a fantastic resource.
And in the second season, I know you guys are just getting started, but do you foresee adding any new characters and casting any new actors?
It’s too early to say, I’m afraid. Not impossible, but not definitely.
Has anyone from these worlds reached out to you about wanting to make a cameo on the show?
Oh, not to me directly [laughs.] I think some shows could accommodate that, but I don’t think we could.
Some critics have been calling Succession the show of the summer. Has the reaction surprised you at all?
I’m a bit cowardly. When I do things, I tend to read absolutely everything because I’m super interested in what people say. But right after you’ve just finished it, it’s difficult to read smart criticism or even just commentary. So I’m one of those people who keeps a bit of a distance. However, I have been made aware by colleagues [about the reaction.] I’ve been in the U.K. for a lot of the time since the edit finished, so I haven’t got that firsthand thing. But I am aware that there’s been a bit of a build. I wouldn’t have necessarily known that was how it would go. To your first question, it’s a show that has an unusual tone and I’m very happy about that, but maybe that presents a certain amount of, like, “Hold on. Should I be laughing?” Some people have asked me that sometimes and I’m like, “Yeah, no, definitely!”
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