The seduction begins with the opening credits: the rococo fabled wealth of times past; the matriarch in tennis whites, watching her brood compete at play; the pampered young ones inured to any notion of poverty; the patriarch who cuts deals and decides fates with a slicing of his hands at the dinner table; the media empire woven into the fabric of New York; the blonde newsreader hooking her audience; the dramatic music score haunting our cortexes.
Season 3, especially its finale, was lauded from some of the best. The New York Times: “The energy crackles among these actors, as their characters swing between being playfully mean and unforgivably cruel.” The Washington Post: “Betrayal. Lies. Confessions. Even more betrayals! Congratulations, Succession Season 3 finale — looks like you lived up to the hype.”
Yes, the HBO series is compulsive and enthralling – but ultimately for all the wrong reasons. It’s a fantasy Murdoch daguerreotype through which many of us can channel our emotions on the Evil Empire and Fox News. That what we see on the screen is a parallel universe of the family and their power.
The real virtues are the actors, who embrace their characters without restraint. Who on the small screen today can match Brian Cox as Logan, Sarah Snook at Shiv, Kieran Culkin as Roman, Jeremy Strong as Kendall. They triumph.
But the real sin is the writing. It’s terrible. Every time the writers get stuck, the F-word comes out. Several times per sentence, innumerable times per hour. To be sure, there is no shortage of such utterances in the public domain. Only recently, the former president, angry that Israel’s Netanyahu called Joe Biden to congratulate him on the election, told Axios, “F--- him.” Art can imitate life.
Nothing is ever decided. Do we do this deal or that deal or no deal? Do I go with Kendall or Shiv or Roman? The answer is yes, and then not. Everyone switches sides more than the number of sides in play.
Until the end, when Logan sells – and sells out his children. And tells them to you know what – which he had already done several times previously.
Succession succeeds in spite of its writing failing it so badly – and that means the substance is so unreal. Too unreal for its mission. We are watching because of what we want to see. We think we are looking at something semi-real.
It is the Murdochs, right?
So Succession is less than the sum of its parts. No one is running the damn business. No wonder Waystar is being taken over. And in a time of unprecedented assault on rapacious corporate greed and power, the story perpetuates fantasies that a major media company can get away with flagrant violations of law, with no one held accountable. SEC? President? Vice-President? Senate committee? F--- off.
Not even a dumb politico would look at Connor and conclude: now I at least know what not to do to win a presidential nomination.
To its credit the Succession fantasy sometimes trumps reality. Donald Trump Jnr had to text his father’s chief of staff to urge him to urge his father to call off the mob attacking the Capitol to stop the certification of Biden as president. Had zero effect on the president. But Roman, Kendall, Shiv and even Connor at least can talk with their dad on existential issues. Had zero effect on Logan.
The writing talents are there – but few and far between. Logan’s one-on-one with tech gig squillionaire Mattson, where the older man finds himself checkmated on the deal, is terrific.
The right stuff of dramatisations of the media and political power that we love to fear, hate or respect comes from scripts that have irony, wit, ridicule – and literary grace. Think Network, The Newsroom, The West Wing, All The President’s Men. Wag the Dog. And Citizen Kane. They were really f----ing great.