The modern mode of watching television, largely uncoupled from broadcast schedules, makes a programme’s transition from critical acclaim to audience approval to mass adoption more gradual than it used to be. Once, there were immediate hits and misses. There still are – but it’s more common for the hits to build gradually, by word of mouth. Many shows seem magically to become more famous in between series than when they are actually on the air. A first season that few people talked about is followed by a second during which people talk about nothing else.
Current example: Succession, the most recent series to have made the transition from ‘Have you seen?’ to ‘You haven’t seen?’ That seemed to happen between its first and second season. Succession is often said to be ‘about the Murdochs’, and I’ve heard that the pilot was explicitly about the family, but all the lawyers in the room fainted and then woke up screaming and now it’s about a fictional media dynasty called the Roys. The rough outline is still pretty Murdochy: an ageing patriarch with three adult children, two boys and a girl, jockeying to succeed him as head of a huge media conglomerate. (Another adult child, a complete idiot, isn’t in contention.) For Murdoch’s News Corp, read Roy’s Waystar Royco. At the start of the first season, Kendall, the eldest of these children – arrogant, uneasy, entitled, anxious – launches a coup against the thuggish, manipulative paterfamilias, Logan. The twenty episodes of the two seasons so far made play out the consequences of the attempted parricide. Starring roles are taken by the other children: Roman (weaselly, malicious, lazy, intuitive) and Shiv (the brightest and maybe the nastiest, the one most like their father in temperament and least like him in politics). A highly credible cast of courtiers and hangers-on rounds out the piece. What’s at stake? The future of the family as a family and the future of Waystar as a business, with the lines between the two (thanks to Logan) deliberately blurred.
This might sound psychodramatic or even soapy, but the main thing about Succession is that it combines the momentum of drama with the texture of comedy. The comedy lives in the show’s language – indeed, if you were coming up with a formula for Succession, it would be one part familial-corporate intrigue and one part comic dialogue. Among my favourite details is the parody Fox News banner running across the bottom of the credits: ‘Gender-fluid illegals may be entering the country twice.’
Many of the best lines are given to Tom, Shiv’s weak, sneaky, bullied-and-bullying husband. In one episode, the top executives of Waystar are on a corporate retreat in Hungary – or as Tom puts it, ‘war-torn, spooky, antisemitic, vampirey, authoritarian Europe’. The scheming executives Karl and Gerri are trying to convince Tom that he needs to tell Logan his latest takeover idea is a mistake. This is something all of them think, but they’re far too frightened of Logan to come out and say so.
Karl: ‘I don’t know how you feel about Pierce [the takeover target]. But a few of us were having a few doubts.’
Tom: ‘OK. Well, that’s interesting. That’s really smart. Why don’t you raise it?’
Karl: ‘OK. Although we also thought it could be good for you to talk to him.’
Tom: ‘OK. All right. Although wouldn’t it be better if it came from old, trusted colleagues?’
Gerri: ‘Right. That’s smart. Karl, that’s interesting. Should we do it?’
Karl: ‘That would be cool [very obviously lying]. It’s not a big deal really who actually says it.’
Gerri: ‘I guess you are family, and he does treat family differently.’
Tom: ‘No, sure. Though he did once call me the Cunt of Monte Cristo.’
Gerri: ‘That was joshing. In a way, that’s a testament to your closeness.’
This storyline looks as if it is loosely based on Murdoch’s acquisition of Dow Jones, proprietor of the Wall Street Journal. Quite a few plot lines from Succession are like that, half-pinched from real life: where Rupert Murdoch appeared in front of a parliamentary committee to declare it ‘the most humble day of my life’ in response to the phone hacking scandal, Logan Roy appears in front of Congress to declare it ‘the worst day of my life’ in response to a scandal about crimes on cruise ships. These similarities and borrowings, though, are more to do with plot than character. Roy is a brutish bully, both sweary himself and the cause of sweariness in others – when he reluctantly goes back to Dundee, his home town, a protestor holds up a sign saying simply ‘ROY CUNT’. (‘It’s not rude over here,’ Tom says, tentatively.) Lambert Le Roux, the Murdochian press tycoon in David Hare and Howard Brenton’s Pravda, was, like Logan, a sweary, hard-charging thug. Murdoch himself isn’t like that: he’s much more feline. The actor who catches this side of him is Simon McBurney in The Loudest Voice in the Room, the dramatisation of Gabriel Sherman’s book about Fox News. The Loudest Voice is the best depiction to date of how systematised, institutionalised sexual harassment works (and is recommended even to, or perhaps especially to, people who don’t like Russell Crowe: he doesn’t impersonate the Fox CEO Roger Ailes so much as turn into him). McBurney’s Murdoch is, like the real one, an unusual combination of direct and evasive. Logan Roy is more straightforward. When asked why he’s confident his children will do what he wants them to do, he answers, with a shrug: ‘Love, fear, whatever.’
The dramatis personae of Succession are pretty horrible, but the magic of the show is that we relate to them just enough to make it unalienating – it’s cold-but-warm. Shaw might have been wrong-headed to say that Coriolanus was Shakespeare’s greatest comedy because none of the characters is likeable, but his remark is acute as an observation about what tilts a show towards the comic. Jesse Armstrong, the creator of Succession, is brilliant at writing characters who tell us enough about what’s going on inside their heads to take the edge off their human badness – he did it in Peep Show, and again in The Thick of It, and now he’s doing it in Succession. Almost all the main characters are nihilists, almost all of the time; the drama turns around the small moments of morality and human feeling. It’s King Lear, but played for laughs – a Molièrean take on the theme of renunciation, rather than a Shakespearean one.
At the same time, Succession is a merciless depiction of how capitalism works. The world of the show is a drama, but it’s also just business as usual. Stewie, one of the show’s baddies – a magnificently horrible hedge fund big shot involved in a hostile takeover of Waystar – sums it up. Right at the end of the final episode of Season Two, Logan and Kendall go to Stewie as supplicants and make a desperate final offer.
Stewie: ‘It does not work for us. Sir.’
Kendall [incandescent]: ‘Dude, are you fucking for real? I mean you fucking need to make it work, OK? Or I will personally fucking destroy you. I will cut you with a fucking razor blade and I will cut your fucking dick off …’
Stewie [wearily]: ‘ … your dick off and push it up your cunt until poo-poo pops out of my nose hole. Dude, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean anything. You can threaten to stuff a million severed dicks into my ball bag, but the actual fact is, we’re persuading more and more shareholders every day that we offer them just a slightly better chance for them to make a little more money on their fucking dollar, and that’s all that this is.’
Logan and Kendall have no reply. Confronted by the deepest verity of capitalism, even the bastards go quiet.