Twenty per cent less hope: the very English satire of Succession

The jostling for position among the maladjusted offspring of a billionaire media magnate in New York provides the fuel for Jesse Armstrong’s HBO series Succession, a bleakly comic portrait of corrupt power that somehow manages to combine sympathy and ridicule for the one per cent.

Hannah Mackay
Updated:

Scions of the times: the Roy clan gather in Succession (Season 1)

Scions of the times: the Roy clan gather in Succession (Season 1)

Succession, HBO’s drama about a powerful but dysfunctional media family, is the show of the moment, if not the show of our times. Written by British comedy writer Jesse Armstrong – best known for Channel 4’s much-loved sitcom Peep Show (2003-15) – Succession marks his first move into the highly competitive world of US prestige drama. As its second season concludes – and following Armstrong’s Emmy Award this year for Outstanding Writing on a Drama series – discussion has already begun about its place in the TV canon alongside classics like The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-08) and Mad Men (2007-15).

The show actually started life nearly a decade ago, and in a slightly different guise – as a feature-length script called The Murdochs, which took place entirely in Rupert Murdoch’s Manhattan penthouse. The characters were the real-life Murdochs, including – this dates it – Rupert’s third wife Wendi Deng, from whom he was divorced in 2013. Deng, you may remember, was suspected by Murdoch of having had an affair with Tony Blair, after a private note of hers was published in Vanity Fair in which she described Blair’s “good body and really really good legs [and] Butt”. The world has changed a lot since then, and so has Armstrong’s work.

Gone are the insubstantial musings of Peep Show’s terminal no-hopers Mark and Jeremy; Armstrong now writes about real power, with a Murdoch-like character – Logan Roy (the excellent Brian Cox) – who has the power to make decisions that will change the world. As Logan’s son Kendall says: “The socio-economic health of multiple continents is dependent on his well-being!”

Brian Cox as Logan Roy with J. Smith-Cameron as Waystar Roy general counsel Gerri

Brian Cox as Logan Roy with J. Smith-Cameron as Waystar Roy general counsel Gerri

Unsurprisingly, given its title and subject matter, The Murdochs was considered too hot to touch, and nobody in the UK picked it up. But Armstrong clung on to the idea of doing something about the families who run the US’s major media conglomerates – of whom the Murdochs are but one, along with the Roberts, who own Comcast; the Redstones, who own CBS and Paramount; and the Sulzbergers, the left-leaning owners of the New York Times upon whom Succession’s Pearce clan are partly based.

After letting the idea percolate for a while, Armstrong eventually started developing the idea further with Adam McKay. Having cut his teeth as head writer on Saturday Night Live, McKay had moved on to make major movies about US politics and current affairs – Wall Street satire The Big Short in 2016; and Vice in 2018, about another infamous political troglodyte from the same era as Murdoch, Dick Cheney – making him an obvious choice to collaborate with Armstrong in extending the scope of the project beyond its real-life origins, which it needed to do to persuade anyone to greenlight it.

Eventually, with the guidance and investment of HBO, The Murdochs did indeed transmogrify into something more substantial and – mercifully for its backers – more fictional. Succession depicts a family – the Roys – who own a media empire, Waystar Royco, which includes the Fox News-inspired ATN news, a cruise ship division and a portfolio of amusement parks.

Hiam Abbass as Marcia Roy

Hiam Abbass as Marcia Roy

As the show expanded, the original script’s single setting of Murdoch’s Madison Avenue apartment evolved into Logan Roy’s taste-avoidant Park Avenue penthouse, a forgettable beige hell-hole with an incredible view nobody in the show ever looks at because they are all too busy eviscerating each other. And Wendy was replaced by Marcia Roy, Logan’s third wife, played with more discretion than Deng could ever muster, by the brilliant Hiam Abbass.

But at the heart of the show, as its title suggests, are the Roy children: Logan’s four potential successors, Connor (Alan Ruck), Kendall, Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin). All of them give exceptional performances, and as an ensemble they’re currently unmatched. It’s particularly nice to see Ruck from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1985) slouch into the role of a middle-aged libertarian drop-out, while British actor Matthew Macfadyen gives the performance of his career as Shiv’s tragicomic husband, the excellently named Tom Wambsgans.

The Roys in Season 2 of Succession

The Roys in Season 2 of Succession

The fractured relationship between Logan and his offspring is the real protein of Succession, and as a portrait of parental torture and abuse it’s hard to think of a show to match it. It’s Mommie Dearest with the camp removed. Materially, Logan bequeaths them the world; emotionally, his bequest is nothing but a scorched earth.

The show has clearly touched a nerve, despite its rarefied setting. As we watch the political consensus collapsing on both sides of the Atlantic, an unwelcome distraction while the ice caps quietly melt away, it is the real-life Roys and their kind who are increasingly seen as the culprits. How, then, has Armstrong managed to create a show that people actually want to watch, about the anxieties of the people everybody wants to hate?

 

A room with a view

The fact that the show has a substantially British writers’ room surely has something to do with it. UK shows have, until recently, declined to emulate the Americans, who famously spend months on end writing collectively in a room, with ideas pooled and then divvied up, and different writers over-writing each other draft by draft like a palimpsest until the ‘perfect’ script is completed. Even though much UK scripted content is now co-produced by US cable and subscription video-on-demand services, US-sized budgets do not necessarily follow, and co-producing UK shows is increasingly seen in the US as a good way to make content that will travel on the cheap. So a room, with all the connected expenses, is still a rarity in the UK, where budgets remain a fraction of their US counterparts.

Armstrong, however, along with his co-writer Sam Bain, was among the early UK adopters of the US system when they assembled a team of writers for the Channel 4 student comedy drama Fresh Meat (2011-16), their last big UK foray together following Peep Show. While setting up the room for Succession, Armstrong moved several of his Fresh Meat cohorts stateside with him, notably Jon Brown (Dead Pixels) and Tony Roche. Roche is unknown outside TV circles, but ubiquitous within them. Some regard him as the Forrest Gump of British television, present in every great writers’ room – from The Thick of It (2005-12) to Fresh Meat to Veep (2012-18) to Succession to Armando Iannucci’s forthcoming HBO sci-fi comedy Avenue 5 – but always just out of sight and under the radar.

Succession (Season 2, 2019)

Succession (Season 2, 2019)

Just as Bain and Armstrong’s Fresh Meat room was able to make JP (played with heaps of broken humanity by Jack Whitehall) into so much more than an oleaginous posho, so the Succession room has managed to make the Roys feel human. Not only has the show dispensed with the Instagram-ready aesthetic of US shows like Billions (2016-) and Suits (2011-19), both of which depict the lives of the super-rich as glossy and aspirational, it has also dispensed with their worldview.

US networks have traditionally depicted power in its most potent, aphrodisiacal form – and the people who have it as all-seeing Machiavels. The Roys are not Machiavels but, for the most part, hopeless incompetents. This is a very English view of power – that the people who hold it are not, fundamentally, to be taken seriously. It was George Orwell who identified the English attitude in this way, asking: “Why is the goose-step not used in England? …It is not used because the people in the street would laugh.”

When I mention this to Armstrong, he cautiously agrees: “I hope that is true. But it also might be one of our English vanities – the ‘play up and play the game’ myth-truth of British attachment to fair play. There is a vein of this in our history – of dissenting, liberal-minded fairness.”

The Roys are not dissenting liberals bothered by notions of fairness, but they are not the goose-stepping uber-villains of our nightmares either. Compared with TV’s other power brokers, they seem inept, fragile, lost. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards (2013-18), for example, is able to see ten steps ahead at all times. Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), head of ‘crisis management’ firm Olivia Pope and Associates in ABC mega-hit Scandal (2012-18), grew into an aspirational icon who could not only think fast and effectively, but whose wardrobe became, in 2013, the basis for a special collection at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Kieran Culkin as Roman Roy with Brian Cox

Kieran Culkin as Roman Roy with Brian Cox

By contrast, nobody in Succession dresses well, a sign of the show’s refusal to sign up to traditional US TV aesthetics when it comes to depicting wealth and power – and a tribute to the show’s much-lauded costume designer Michelle Matland (it’s famously much harder to dress shows in which people have bad taste, or no taste, than it is to dress shows in which people make flamboyant and creative choices, which are more fun). Everybody in Succession has the means to dress well – but nobody has the confidence to make a flamboyant choice, sartorially or otherwise. Stepping out is too dangerous.

Matland’s work, along with that of production designer Stephen Carter, trashes the traditional US TV palette which allows other shows, like Billions, to function straightforwardly as adverts for the high life. Instead, under Armstrong’s guidance, the production and costume design of Succession work towards a different goal, and that is to make this world feel not desirable, but empty – as an endless blur of browns, greys and tans make interiors interchangeable, even across continents. When the show flips to London, the colour schemes remain eerily intact – the international aesthetic of privilege, the safe-choice Hotel Look which depersonalises everything. Succession makes the international lifestyle of the one per cent seem barren and depressing – or to use a more British word, drab.

 

A very British coup

So although the show is produced with the budget and the wisdom of a typically high-end US prestige drama, and even if we agree to put Armstrong, the show’s British creator and showrunner, in the same bracket as David Chase, Matthew Weiner and David Simon (creators of The Sopranos, Mad Men and The Wire, respectively), we also have to acknowledge that there’s something different about it, and about him. Is it his Britishness – not so much as an identity, but perhaps as a way of seeing the world?

Brian Cox

Brian Cox

“This show needs 20 per cent more hope!” Such is the apocryphal instruction from an anonymous US TV executive to a British sitcom writer looking to rework his show for a US network audience. Without that kind of injection of optimism, the theory goes, America’s nation of Pollyannas will find it all too depressing and switch over to watch Dancing with the Stars instead.

The fact that the only really successful example of this translatlantic transition is Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office – which Greg Daniels remade respectfully, but with a solid intuition about what its New World audience would want to watch – suggests that British shows just don’t fare very well when suffused with this much extra hope.

Take Peep Show’s central character Mark Corrigan, for example. Also created by Armstrong and Bain, Mark would not be able to cope with even 10 per cent more hope, let alone 20. In the final episode of the final series of Peep Show, it dawns on both him and us that Mark’s forties won’t be much more than a grotesque simulacrum of his twenties – doing the same commute every day, but carrying more weight and less hair – and he will never, ever escape his own neuroses, or that flat, or Jeremy, the albatross with whom he shares it. The last line, “I simply must get rid of him,” is said in the knowledge that it will never actually happen.

Brian Cox

Brian Cox

The desire to simply “get rid of him” is no doubt lurking in the subconscious of each of the Roy children too. But they all have to learn that it is a desire without hope of realisation, because they are as stuck as Corrigan. An American show totally without hope is a new thing, and it’s what makes Succession unique, and uniquely British in outlook.

It also drives another nail into the coffin of the American Dream. As Armstrong observes, “The prevalence of the philosophy [of the American Dream] makes for an optimistic country and a bracing enthusiasm. But there is also a kind of tragic sense to it too. Because the American Dream sets up this psychological catch-22 where the failure to advance or attain the dream is pitched back on to the person who suffers the failure.”

But these are not people who have suffered obvious failure. Succession shows us the glittering prizes of the winners of American life, but then shows us the psychological cost of winning and then maintaining them. And for that, a trace of sitcom, with its closed episodes which reset to zero and their circular, unchanging way of seeing the world, helps build not only the comedy in Succession, but also the idea that its characters cannot really move.

Kieran Culkin

Kieran Culkin

“I’ve been involved with writing more hours of sitcom by far in my career than anything else,” Armstrong says. “I think structurally that might be somewhere in my brain. I like an episode that could stand alone. I don’t like it in a heavily serialised drama when I feel the wheels are being spun in that way of just keeping things simmering. My dream is for a show where you have the sort of felicitous space of a novel where you can take time out to explore character and nooks and crannies of plot, but also keep that sitcom thing of episodes that have enough protein and structural integrity that you can enjoy them alone.”

Those who remember David Nobbs’s excellent BBC sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79) will probably also remember its famous title sequence. Every week Perrin, a businessman in constant existential crisis, ran along a rain-drizzled beach before taking off his suit and disappearing naked into the sea. Faking his own death was meant to be the decisive act that broke the logjam of his broken life as a middle manager at Sunshine Desserts. But by playing it each week in the title sequence, it became meaningless, a joke endlessly reiterated but ultimately leading to nothing.

The Roy family are all, in their own way, doing something similar: running away only to find that they can’t. When Shiv’s fiancé Tom realises that she is cheating on him and that their whole relationship is a sham – “Is this… real?” he asks – it cuts through as one of the only moments of real honesty in the show. He has the opportunity to run into the sea and never come back. But it’s too scary. Having dipped his toe in the water, he realises he’d rather stay dry but in denial. “I trust you, and this has put my mind to rest,” he says, with no conviction at all. In the final episode, he appears to call time on the whole relationship, but that too is exposed as a mere bargaining chip to stop his wife from selling him out in the wake of a scandal.

Matthew Macfadyen as Tom Wambsgans and Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy

Matthew Macfadyen as Tom Wambsgans and Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy

This chimes with the feeling of living in a time of mass protest – from Occupy to the Women’s March to Extinction Rebellion – in which, counterintuitively, real change has begun to feel impossible. And in the UK, it may actually be our urge to find the comedy in everything that has partially enabled this. The fact that we are happy to be governed by a man whose reputation was fomented on Have I Got News For You is perhaps a sign of our refusal as a nation to engage in serious self-reflection.

And that, as Armstrong says, has had reputational consequences for us abroad. “There is also another strain [to the English] – it’s the strain of high Tory imperialist reaction, Peterloo, the South African concentration camps, the massacre at Amritsar, war crimes in Kenya and the Malay Emergency. The ’53 coup in Iran. The English in Ireland, from Cromwell to the Black and Tans. Even Orwell talked about having an impulse to drive his bayonet into the stomach of a grinning Buddhist monk. It’s the fact that we can try to forget this strain, or underplay it, that makes Britain – and maybe especially Englishness – also a byword for hypocrisy in much of the world.”

As the UK and US drift ever further into uncharted political territory, it has begun to feel that there are no longer any consequences to anything. The US president has been accused of sexual harassment by more than 20 women, and yet he is still the president. Both he and his British counterpart continue, so far, unhindered by the growing whiff of scandal and corruption. We can end up feeling like Reggie Perrin ourselves, running pointlessly into the sea to make a point nobody wants to hear. But at least we have Succession to watch while we’re doing it.

 

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