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“We’re Like the Anti-‘Billions’”: How ‘Succession’ Makes Wealth Look Miserable

Despite the enormous riches at the disposal of its characters, ‘Succession’ portrays cold, bland environments with little regard for personal taste or beauty. That comes down to a series of intentional decisions from the show’s designers and cinematographers.

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a new day in corporate America, and Kendall Roy needs a bachelor pad. Back when Succession began, Kendall was still living in the home he once shared with his ex-wife, an Upper East Side townhouse fit for a family—or awkward break-up sex on the staircase. For his emo phase in Season 2, Kendall sort of moved on, ditching the house that “smelt of Rava” and finding a rental (“It’s fashion week; all the good penthouses are gone”) where he could lick his wounds. He then bought a block of five luxury condos in Tribeca, one of which later went on sale in the real world for $10 million. Unlike the apartment displayed in the show, a spare that Kendall offers Greg like it’s a futon, the listing photos actually had furniture.

In the third and latest season, Kendall is in a different place. He’s once again in open rebellion against his father, and at least thinks of himself as back on his game. For his latest abode, Succession required a setting that would subtly match his mood. It needed an apartment that seemed opulent but empty, something that felt on top of the world, but also disconnected from it.

In other words, it needed Hudson Yards.

The $25 billion mega-development on Manhattan’s western edge is only two years old, but its reputation precedes it. The New York Times deemed it “devoid of urban design,” a place that “epitomizes a skin-deep view of architecture as luxury branding”; New York, the same publication that broke the cruise ship scandal in the world of the show, decried the “apotheosis of blank-state affluence.” Masterminded by Stephen Ross, a billionaire developer whose assets may equal Logan Roy’s, the complex includes office space (including HBO’s), a shopping mall, and a few apartment buildings—one of which now counts Kendall Roy as a resident, several dozen stories in the sky.

“I want to tread carefully because I don’t want to say something that the people at Hudson Yards might not appreciate,” says executive producer Scott Ferguson. “But there’s a very polished sheen. It’s one of the things about all these characters’ environments—it doesn’t feel like they put down deeper roots and have a lot of their personal history somewhere …. There’s a bland interchangeability that’s pleasant and beautiful, but doesn’t get deeply character-oriented.”

Many of the criticisms leveled at Hudson Yards could also apply to the Roys themselves and the rarefied lives they lead. Their environs aren’t gilded or garish, but they are soulless, so devoid of texture and mess as to seem slightly inhuman. It’s an effect the show’s production team works carefully to create, vetting locations with an eye toward authenticity. “Some of the apartments we looked at, people had lived there for years,” says production designer Stephen Carter. “It was going to be a huge ordeal to strip them of the personality enough to be an appropriate space for Kendall.” Hudson Yards didn’t have that issue.

As a bonus, the pandemic had emptied the area of actual people; with all those would-be commuters working from home, the place was eerily quiet in the fall of 2020, when Succession finally started filming after an extended hiatus. Kendall was a desolate man in a desolate place. On Succession, the background tends to act more like a mirror.

Succession does not make extreme wealth look extremely fun; undermining the myth that it is might be the show’s fundamental project. The Roys may be comfortable, but they’re also miserable, a state of affairs made most explicit in the writing and acting. But as superb as the scripts and performances may be, they aren’t the only weapons a TV show has in its arsenal. Succession doesn’t just tell us Logan has spent his 80-plus years on this earth building, in his own brother’s words, an “empire of shit.” It shows us the fruits of that labor, often in the form of the cramped helicopters, fluorescent-lit offices, and generic homes where the characters spend their time. In doing so, every frame subtly advances the master argument: that the trade-offs required to get and keep a spot at the top of the financial food chain are inherently not worth it.

Plenty of films and shows peer into the lifestyles of the rich and richer. Succession is part of a proud tradition that includes everything from ’80s soap Dynasty, a frequent comparison, to contemporaries like Billions, the high-octane drama about hedge funders and their legal adversaries. (In just the last few months, other examples include The White Lotus, The Morning Show, and the revival of Gossip Girl. It’s a crowded field, and only getting more so.) But it also stands apart from this lineage, in part because of the attitude it expresses toward its characters’ ill-gotten gains.

Succession is not alone in criticizing its characters or their choices. What’s unusual is how it strips away the glitz that can get between the audience and reflexive disgust. “I love Billions, but it’s a different [show] about billionaires,” says cinematographer Patrick Capone. “We’re like the anti-Billions. The plush is there, but we don’t hammer it home.” Hammering it home would involve what Ferguson calls the “montage of bliss”—the slow, loving pan over Bobby Axelrod’s new bachelor pad, for example—that is pointedly absent from Succession’s cinematic repertoire. Such a tactic is often aimed at a more ambivalent response: The White Lotus wants us to balk at the hotel guests’ entitlement, but also understand the escape they’re seeking. At other times, the equation is more straightforward: People like looking at beautiful things; therefore, beauty equals eyeballs. Succession sacrifices aesthetic appeal for clarity of vision. Instead of playing up the perks of life as a billionaire, Succession employs a series of techniques to puncture the mystique.

The first of those techniques is fidelity. “I don’t try and cheat—to convince somebody that something’s expensive when it’s not,” says set decorator George DeTitta Jr. “For the most part, the things that we’re choosing and using are things that might be purchased by somebody who has money and who is in that world.” In part, this attention to detail helps the audience suspend disbelief and invest in the action. When Kendall and Logan drop everything to kiss shareholder Josh Aaronson’s ring, for instance, the investor’s seaside house (on a private island in the show, on Long Island in real life) has to look nice enough to be worth the trip. It’s the glassy, light-filled space of a man worth not just Logan’s time, but a rare, unconvincing attempt to suck up and seem accommodating.

Re-creating that level of luxury can pose a challenge even on a prestige drama budget. “When you’re portraying billionaire characters, there is some pressure to deliver sets that look like they’re incredibly expensive, but not necessarily be so incredibly expensive,” says Carter. The same goes for fashion. For the designer pieces that make up the Roys’ wardrobe, costume designer Michelle Matland often ventures to discount stores like Saks Off 5th and outlet malls like Woodbury Commons. “I’m a big fan of New Jersey,” she says, laughing—something no Roy would ever say, even if some of their clothes were sourced there. Not that you would know it from looking at them. “We know what we’re looking for; we just have to find it,” Matland adds. “It’s a real scavenger hunt.”

Ironically, minding a bottom line can sometimes push the show further in the direction of the Murdoch milieu. Succession tends to opt for location shoots over constructed sets, a preference that both sells the story and preserves efficiency. For the Waystar offices, Carter explains, he and director Mark Mylod, also an executive producer, wanted the flexibility to shoot for all hours. That’s harder to do on a soundstage: “Once you get into backdrops and stuff, you’re sort of limited to a certain time of day and a certain time of night look. We didn’t have the budget to do big floor-to-ceiling video wall screens at that point.” So they split the difference, building a set on a vacant floor of 7 World Trade Center. The show got the best of both worlds: jaw-dropping views sans CGI and a set built to their specifications.

Beyond immersion, there’s a thematic point to all this authenticity. To accurately satirize its world, Succession must first accurately depict it, an approach that’s given rise to some of its most memorable scenes. For the hunting expedition in Season 2, for example, the writers originally had the Waystar C-suite out for some deer—except the episode was set to shoot in late winter, which wouldn’t be deer season. Inspired by an old scouting trip to Romania and tales of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s ignoble bear hunts, Ferguson suggested a trip to Eastern Europe; a Gold Coast estate in Long Island convincingly worked as a continental castle. In a more laissez-faire part of the world, the Roys wouldn’t have to bother with pesky permits. Once the crew settled on Hungary as the in-story location, the prey became wild boars, which the writers then used as a springboard for Boar on the Floor. “Deer on the floor” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Getting rich right is only half the battle. Succession then faces the age-old question of depiction versus endorsement: how to portray almost inconceivable wealth without cosigning the moral bankruptcy that comes with it. Luckily, these twin goals—staying true to life and not glamorizing the characters’ lives—aren’t at odds, at least as much as they may seem.

Billionaires may be long on resources, but they’re often short on personal taste, or at least the time and inclination to express that taste through their many, many possessions. Instead, that task gets outsourced to various third parties. And when you’re buying clothes or decorating a space for your boss instead of yourself, there are different considerations at play than sentimental value or a specific aesthetic.

“We were trying to show that these are people who don’t spend a lot of time in vintage shops, getting excited about a quirky piece of art or a quirky piece of furniture,” Carter says. “They have armies of pickers and interior decorators and designers that are going out for them and who are under pressure not to bring back the wrong thing.” Items are selected to avoid offense, rather than to actively please the eyes. Succession may be less ostentatiously luxe than we’re used to, but it’s still luxe—just understated, even nondescript.

Take Logan’s apartment, one of the show’s first backdrops and one of its most used. It’s something of a nerve center, where the characters convene to celebrate highs and desperately scheme their way out of lows. It’s also overwhelmingly beige, in a literal sense and a figurative one. The Roys may have some parallels to the Trumps, but their gathering place is about as far from Donald and Melania’s rococo freakout as it’s possible to get.

In the pilot, set-designed by Kevin Thompson, Chez Logan was a composite of several real-life locations. When Carter and DeTitta came on for the following episodes, they were charged with turning the apartment into one of Succession’s few constructed sets, building on what Thompson started while moving production to Silvercup Studios in Queens. “We were never looking to dazzle you with their environment …. There was little use of color; there weren’t a lot of things that drew attention,” DeTitta says of the pilot. That informed his choices for the space going forward: “You’ll see a lot of creams, a lot of things that just kind of blend together. They’re beautiful to the eye, but I don’t think they look over the top.”

When you don’t spend enough time in a house to make it truly your own, it can feel like a hotel—which is to say, not like a home, however nice the towels. In a memorable scene from Season 2, Shiv presents Logan with a binder full of properties, her gift to him on his 50th anniversary as CEO. “These are nice houses,” he observes. “These are our houses, Dad,” she corrects him, to which he can only ask, “Really?” The exchange may be a nod at Logan’s fading memory, but it’s also a look at what it must feel like to have a portfolio of properties this overstuffed. To most people, a house in Malibu is the dream. To Logan, it’s nothing more than an Airbnb kept on retainer.

For clothes, the rationale is slightly different. The Roys and their hangers-on do have a sense of personal style: the Savile Row suits Logan wears out and about, the sleek outfits Shiv dons after ditching politics for the C-suite. It’s just subdued, sometimes comically so. Take those plain black baseball caps everyone wears. There’s no logo to advertise as such, but they cost just as much as anything festooned with Burberry plaid or interlocking C’s. “They don’t need to have the bling to them, because anyone who would know would recognize them immediately,” Matland explains.

The Roys have a more intimate relationship with their clothes than their homes. The clothes are still meant for personal comfort, not outward expression. “They are the anti-Kardashians,” Matland says. “They do not need to explore who they are in terms of how they represent themselves through their clothes or accessories.” Logan’s poo-brown cable knit isn’t meant to catch the eye any more than his washed-out foyer. It’s meant to signal he doesn’t care about catching the eye, and hasn’t had to for quite some time.

Combined with the sterile backdrops, the effect is the opposite of aspirational. Who would covet a wardrobe made of anti-statement pieces? Who would want to live in a place drained of joie de vivre? Succession goes out of its way to flatten these locations even further, going so far as to remove pre-installed pieces of art that may signal too strong of a personal touch. Over time, the lack of stimuli sends a message about who these people are. “You feel a bit of an emptiness,” Carter says. “Hopefully that echoes the moral state where this family finds itself …. It’s all very transient. They’re on the move so much that they’re not spending time growing deep roots and connecting to their environments, but also to each other.”

Sometimes, Succession makes its point via contrast. One of the new season’s most important locations is the residence of Kendall’s ex-wife, Rava, who’s moved into an apartment in the iconic Woolworth Building. (Once entirely commercial, the upper floors were recently converted into condos. You can buy the penthouse for a cool $79 million, or Rava’s unit for a mere $23 million.) After his dramatic betrayal at a press conference, Kendall sets up shop there to plan next steps and evade the press. It’s not exactly humble, but it is a little more lived-in than the average Roy abode. There’s colorful wallpaper, art on the walls, a kid’s scooter (Iverson’s?) parked casually in a bedroom. It’s a family home, and that family no longer includes Kendall.

“What we were going for was to try to show a little bit of what Kendall had given up in letting his marriage fail,” Carter says. “Rava has moved on. She’s got a fairly put-together life. Maybe not as glamorous and flashy as it would’ve been had she stuck with him, but a lot better for her.” Still, not as glamorous doesn’t mean there’s no glamour. For the bedroom where the four Roy siblings duke it out in Episode 2, Carter decorated the walls with images like Kendall’s daughter posing with the likes of Harry Styles. You can take the kid out of Kendall Roy’s life, but you can’t take Kendall out of the kid.

With its long, enclosed scenes, Succession is often akin to a play. But as a TV show, it has an extra array of devices to deliver its story. Details like fashion and decor are essential, but they’re also static. Film and TV are dynamic, which means Succession doesn’t just make a point with what it puts on screen, but how its cameras move through the spaces on display.

“Our way of avoiding wealth porn is less in terms of location picking—we pick at the very top of the market,” Ferguson says. “It’s more in terms of how we shoot it.”

That’s where figures like Capone come in. Like Carter and DeTitta, Capone came aboard after the pilot, which was directed by Adam McKay and established the show’s signature style. Not everything on Succession is filmed with a handheld camera, but its trademark shot is a jittery fidget, zooming abruptly in and out as combatants trade zingers. The tight focus magnifies the performances, playing up the micro-expressions and small gestures that separate the good from the masterful. There’s a reason the show’s given us so many GIFs of split-second reaction shots; they’re the show’s visual bread and butter.

HBO

Just as important as what’s left in, though, is what’s left out. The Succession zoom is the polar opposite of the slow, steady pan that marks the typical display of wealth, making sure the viewer drinks in every detail of an over-the-top array.

In a casually brutal scene from the Season 2 premiere, we see the staff of Logan’s so-called Summer Palace painstakingly prepare an elaborate meal, only for the Roys to get pizza and let the whole feast go to waste. Succession’s set design is certainly appreciated here—along with set decorator Ana Buljan and art director Carmen Cárdenas, both Carter and DeTitta received Emmy nominations for their work on Season 2—but its camera behaves similarly to the characters on screen, implicitly shrugging off the craftsmanship that went into making these beautiful things, and embodying the Roys’ jaded entitlement.

“We think of it as photojournalism, like a fly on the wall to these billionaires that have no idea how lavish their lives really are,” Capone explains. “The audience sees these peripheral, beautiful sets and locations, but we don’t pounce on them. We don’t pounce on the clothing. We don’t pounce on the jewelry. It’s just there. And it’s just taken for granted.”

The West Wing may have popularized the walk-and-talk, but Succession puts the technique to very different use. Where the political drama underscored the thrill of a propulsive, fast-paced atmosphere, Succession focuses on its cast at the expense of the rooms they’re moving through. The Roys don’t stop to smell the roses, so Succession doesn’t either. “The first time I came to New York, I was looking up at all the buildings. Now I don’t,” Ferguson says. “We treat it like an everyday location because for Logan or Kendall, this is every day for them. They don’t get fascinated by how fancy or expensive it is. They’re just going about their business.”

At times, Capone admits, he has his work cut out for him. When you’re shooting in coastal Croatia or scenic Tuscany—the locations of the finales for seasons 2 and 3, respectively—how do you make it seem like anything less than the paradise it is? “We’re not a Merchant Ivory movie, although we were in locations that could have been in a Merchant Ivory movie,” Capone says. “All the time we’re saying, OK, how do we keep this off center?”

But unlike their air-conditioned interiors, the natural world doesn’t come pre-tailored to the Roys’ expectations. Mylod, Capone, and their crew refuse to make conditions more comfortable if they end up shooting in the rain, like at the Lake Placid resort that hosted the fictional Argestes summit, or peak summer heat, like in Croatia or Tuscany. They don’t use fly swatters to take out unsightly insects, or take pains to put the cast in a flattering light, literal or metaphorical. (The yacht scenes, for instance, were filmed at midday, with the glaring sun directly overhead. Golden hour it wasn’t.) It’s not a matter of spoiling the idyll—just declining to mitigate the risks that come with exposing oneself to the elements. When the Roys hit the rare snag money can’t fix, Succession makes a meal of it.

Not every actor on Succession is as Method as Jeremy Strong. In pursuing a sense of unease, however, the show can blur the line between performer and performance. Unlike many TV shoots, Succession doesn’t break shots into masters and coverage, staging and re-staging a scene from several static angles. Instead, every scene is filmed in one continuous set-up, often with camera operators roving the floor as honorary ensemble players. “Sometimes in the handheld, when you’re that close to an actor, they feel very physically uncomfortable,” Capone says. It’s unnerving to be observed at such a minimal remove, or even just to work in a way an actor isn’t used to. “Our messiness keeps the actors just a little bit off kilt,” he explains—an atmosphere on set that bleeds into the show. Actors can’t appreciate the atmosphere when they’re squirming with anxiety, and neither can their characters.

It’s a compliment to say Succession is, in some respects, less than the sum of its parts. The show combines palatial homes, private jets, and unparalleled amenity into a noxious cocktail that’s the opposite of enticing. No one would choose to be a Roy, even if it meant inheriting all their advantages. That’s in large part due to the people responsible for conveying how those advantages look and feel to those accustomed to enjoying them. Critics often employ the idea of the male or female gaze, a useful framework for how gender and sexuality influence a film or show and, eventually, its audience. Succession suggests a similar concept for class. Most shows about the rich ogle their belongings with the unconcealed envy of an outsider looking in. Succession buzzes with the hyperactive boredom of the insider looking down at their fingernails. It’s less a gaze than a glance.

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