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Prestige TV Has Taken a Page Out of Sportswriting’s Media Playbook

‘Succession’ makes its stars and creators available to journalists after episodes air. The result is eerily similar to an NBA star fielding questions in a postgame press conference.

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I’ve got good news for NBA players who hate answering questions from reporters after they perform in front of millions of viewers. Actors have to suffer through the questions, too. Last Sunday, as the Heat and Celtics met the media after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, Jeremy Strong was getting quizzed about Season 4, Episode 9 of Succession on HBO’s official podcast. Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum would recognize the ritual. Strong was doing a postgame interview.

HBO sends the cast and creative team of Succession—like it has done with The Last of Us and Barry, whose creator-star Bill Hader appeared on Ringer podcasts—to various outlets to “unpack” the latest plot twists. Strong may not sit in front of a backdrop with team logos or glance at a stat sheet. But tell me these questions don’t sound like what you hear in an NBA media room:

“How did you play that scene?”

“What did you think of how Logan died?”

“Talk about doing it this way and directing it from this point of view.”

“How does it feel to have Tom be so central to the show’s endgame despite not being a Roy kid?”

“Can you talk to me about the obsession with wine?”

In sports, the postgame interview is easy to make fun of. That’s why I do it! Today, I want to point out that this odd, somewhat thankless ritual has become a staple of pop-culture writing. When actors stand in for athletes, a funny thing happens: Reporters ask the same questions and get the same answers.

For sportswriters, the postgame interview is an essential, awkward part of their lives. Unlike celebrities in any other industry, players are forced to face the press: the NBA fined Butler $25,000 for skipping out on Sunday’s session. In recent years, TV coverage has transformed the postgame from an exercise in notebook-filling into performance art. See Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla’s terse Game 3 press conference after losing to Miami.

The playoffs have produced a few memorable sound bites, like Tatum “humbly” calling himself one of the best players in the world, Dillon Brooks trolling LeBron James, and James musing about retirement. But most of the player-reporter interactions are gruelingly mechanical. After stealing Game 1 in Boston, Butler was asked, “How critical is it?”

“Very much critical,” he replied.

Pop-culture journalism has followed in sportswriting’s lead. Over the past 20 years, the episode recap—the “gamer,” as we knew it on the sports page—has crowded out the formal review. And just as NBA teams send players to the podium, networks fill post-episode content holes by dispatching their actors to official podcasts (where journalists like Kara Swisher and Olivia Nuzzi ask the questions) or to outlets like Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, The Ringer, and The New York Times. Minutes after Logan Roy’s TV death, the top of the Times’ homepage featured a story with the headline, “How Brian Cox Felt About That Big Episode 3 Twist in Succession.”

Players are drilled by PR staffs to keep postgame answers positive and brief—to avoid “tasting yourself,” as the wonderful baseball saying goes. On post-episode interviews, actors sound pretty similar: modest and evasive, aware the substance of what they say is less important than the fact that they’ve deigned to answer the question at all.

Of the Succession cast members, Strong is a little like the ballplayer who talks too much while everyone else in the locker room rolls their eyes. See this New Yorker profile from 2021. After Sunday’s penultimate episode of the series, which had Kendall Roy eulogizing his dad, Strong was eager to dive into his character’s brain. (“As we head into the finale, what is Kendall thinking?”) But now even Strong sounds like a veteran locker-room presence. Succession creator Jesse Armstrong’s writing, he said, was “brilliant.” Juliana Canfield, who plays Kendall’s assistant Jess, was also “brilliant.” I’ve got to give credit to my coaches and teammates.

Moving the postgame interview from sports to pop culture is an interesting experiment. What kind of things would a different set of journalists seek to find out? As it turns out, it’s the same things sportswriters have been seeking for years.

One is a dollop of color. What’s the vibe like in the locker room, I mean, the writers’ room? After Logan Roy’s death, Swisher asked director Mark Mylod about the table read where the actors read the script before filming it. Sounding like a coach who’s not keen on revealing much, Mylod allowed that it was “pretty emotional.” Armstrong said the conversation Succession’s writers had about death was “cathartic.” In those tantalizing adjectives, sportswriters will recognize glimpses of the backroom scenes they’ve tried to report out for years.

In postgame interviews, sportswriters like to ask coaches why they made certain decisions. Culture writers treat showrunners the same way: why kill off Logan in Episode 3 rather than Episodes 9 or 10?

On HBO’s podcast, Armstrong was happy to explain. (Sportswriters would kill for a coach who talks as much about their process as a showrunner.) But when Swisher asked Cox what he made of Logan dying off-screen, Cox replied, “What the writers decide, the writers decide.” The coach calls the plays and I run them.

Cox added that he doesn’t watch Succession, ruling out questions about how the finished episodes turned out. It sounded like Tatum after his lousy fourth quarter in Game 2 against the Heat, explaining that he had to watch the tape before commenting further.

After games, sportswriters are at their most searching when they’ve seen an athlete do something amazing. Reporters want to explain how the athlete willed themselves to greatness. Thus the questions that begin: “Take me through your thoughts when …”

All of us sportswriters hope for a Rosebud-type answer: “I happened to remember something Coach said during training camp” or “At that moment, I thought of my late uncle.” But, most of the time, writers find the player unable—or maybe unwilling—to explain their art.

Actors, too, are reluctant to reveal the mysteries of their trade. After Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) and Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) had a fight at a party in Episode 7, Swisher asked Macfadyen how he summoned the emotion to act the scene. What was your approach?

“You just do it,” said Macfadyen, sounding like a player who hit a game-winning 3 from the corner.

“You learn the lines very, very well, as well as you can, and then you rehearse a little bit,” Macfadyen continued. “Sarah and I just sort of skated through. Then you get a little idea of how it’s going to be and then you start shooting and then it just reveals itself.” What did we learn from that?

In a podcast published Sunday, Swisher asked James Cromwell, who plays Logan’s brother, Ewan, about Logan’s funeral in Episode 9. “Tell me first about the energy on the set.”

Cromwell said he had trouble remembering his lines because of the effects of long COVID. If this had been an NBA media room, you would have seen writers look up from their phones. A nugget! A dollop of color!

Then shooting started, Cromwell continued, and he … remembered his lines after all. Here, the NBA writers would have glanced back at Twitter. A nice detail, maybe a lede if they didn’t have anything else.

No Succession actor has used a post-episode interview to position themselves for the future quite like James did after Game 4 against the Nuggets. But the show has a big cast. The interviews offer a chance for a supporting actor to get some attention, to be declared the show’s “stealth MVP.”

What’s striking about the Succession interviews is that the interrogators almost always have luck with one particular type of question. It’s not a question about the actor. It’s about their character:

“Why was it so important for Ewan to speak at Logan’s funeral?”

“Is there part of Karolina that is thinking about her own chances as a possible successor?”

“Roman is finally co-CEO. Do you think he even likes the job?”

You can feel the actors relax. Now, they can talk intimately about someone other than themselves, move from the real world to the Waystar boardroom, and reveal a nugget or two about Succession while safeguarding their own mystique. How critical is that to an actor’s postgame interview? Very much critical.