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How ‘Succession’ Became the Best Show on Television

The HBO series is a true summer phenomenon—though it took a little while for everyone to catch on

Jeremy Strong from HBO’s ‘Succession’ HBO/Ringer illustration

You wouldn’t know it by its ecstatic reception of late, but when it premiered earlier this summer, Succession could be a little bit of a slog. To be fair, it was abundantly clear creator Jesse Armstrong understood that the thinly fictionalized Murdochs at his HBO drama’s center were, to a person, loathsome individuals. But good intentions, however well-emphasized, don’t automatically lead to quality. “Awful people and their internecine squabbles” describe some of the best shows of the century, and also some of the worst—especially when said awful people bear a more-than-passing resemblance to the ones in the news.

In the wake of Succession’s electric season finale, however, it’s a good time to acknowledge that Armstrong and his collaborators, including executive producer and pilot director Adam McKay, have adjusted Succession into one of the most surprising and entertaining debuts of the summer. Some critics, like my colleague Chris Ryan, have been Succession partisans from the start, but over the season’s 10-week run, Succession fever has spread outside the bounds of The Ringer: “I didn’t get HBO’s genre-bending drama at first. Now I realize it’s amazing,” goes a representative subhead from Slate. “You should really be watching HBO’s Succession,” advises The Cut.

Despite the sheer enthusiasm of its evangelists, Succession still has its naysayers. (For one thing, no series with 60-plus-minute episodes will entirely avoid complaints.) Nevertheless, even a skeptic can appreciate the leaps and bounds Succession took in working its way to its pathetic yet strangely moving crescendo, in which patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) definitively strong-arms a prodigal son back into the fold against the backdrop of his daughter’s likely doomed wedding. So, what changed between the first episodes and the finale? And how was Succession able to conquer what critic Alan Sepinwall has dubbed the It Gets Good problem, wherein few have the patience to wait for a show to hit its stride?

One of the most common explanations of Succession I’ve heard is that the show is, spiritually, far more comedy than drama. This is both in keeping with Armstrong’s CV, which includes stints at both Peep Show and Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, and entirely justified by the show itself. In particular, Succession has a distinctly Iannuccian flair: not just the dialogue, with its operatic profanity, but also the ensemble-of-idiots setup, or the way the frequently handheld camera lingers on the split-second reactions of characters who’ve just been burned. (Succession was shot on film and, as befits a show about dynastic wealth, has a fairly high production value. Still, the show frequently belies its budget with its deliberately shaky, almost mockumentary cinematography.) It follows, then, that Succession has something in common with some of the most polarizing comedy produced today: The flaws that threaten to sink it and the highlights that justify them are often just a razor’s edge apart.

Many of the weaknesses that plagued Succession’s early episodes were intended strengths that weren’t quite having their desired effect. Succession centers on the Roys, a family that both epitomizes American concepts of wealth and power and reifies them through its massive media apparatus. As Jason Concepcion pointed out, each Roy is a cautionary tale for the corrosive, unappetizing effects of excessive prosperity on the soul. Logan is a miserable, deteriorating bastard who has only contempt for his children, yet refuses to cut them loose because they’re extensions of his ego. Oldest son Connor (Alan Ruck) is a failson with an escort girlfriend who emerges from his New Mexico ranch only to plan the occasional gala. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) desperately wants his father’s approval and the street cred of an independent businessman, sentencing him to neither. Siobhan, or “Shiv” (Sarah Snook), has made a career outside of the family, yet is so unable to renounce them that she marries a sycophant Waystar Royco exec named Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen). Roman (Kieran Culkin), the self-appointed family hedonist, plays the part of the above-it-all trickster, yet wants a gold star just as badly as Kendall. He just doesn’t want to work for one.

The problem is that a show like Succession, which already has been renewed for a second season, needs a reason for viewers to invest and commit for years to come, a necessity that’s often mutually exclusive with maintaining a moral high ground. Early on, I sometimes felt that Succession was, in its own way, a homework show—not a label you’d expect for a series in which a major character swallows his own ejaculate, but one that fits because the show was prioritizing lesson-learning over pleasure regardless. The Roys are rich, but Succession largely eschews the conspicuous consumption of a Gossip Girl or a Dynasty, setting its action in sterile boardrooms or unfashionable apartments. The Roys control the world, but they see very little of it, interacting only with each other and their peers in isolated, suffocating spaces. The Roy children sit at the top of the corporate ladder, yet they exhibit no knowledge, skills, or qualifications—besides their last name—to explain their status. All this bolstered Succession’s case for the fundamental bankruptcy of the rich. Without wish fulfillment or grudging admiration to help the medicine go down, it could also make for a very tough watch.

In later episodes, however, Succession’s vicious satire is counterbalanced with more developed, and more differentiated, characters. Succession has been frequently and unfairly compared to Billions, another show about the 0.01 percent that became a critical favorite after a rocky start. But while the two series are quite different in their style and themes, they hinge on a very similar turning point. Both shows begin by diving straight into their overarching, long-term conflict—then in their sixth episodes, resolve that conflict, clearing the way for smaller, more interesting stories that in turn bolster the larger one.

Succession’s inciting incident is Logan’s refusal, after an 18-month preparation process, to hand over the reins to Kendall, followed shortly by a stroke. In the subsequent vacuum, a power struggle immediately ensues, but apart from Kendall and Logan, it’s not entirely clear what many characters want out of the financial tug-of-war, or what’s motivating their decisions. Our introduction to Connor, now known to the audience as a right-wing buffoon with a confidence only money can buy, is his refusal to participate in the show’s central melee, an admirable yet undistinguishing choice that tells us little about the Roy clan’s eldest. Meanwhile, Shiv gets yanked back into the family unit before Succession can demonstrate who she is outside it.

Fortunately, Succession soon cut through the muddle for some temporary resolution and a much-needed regroup. Kendall attempts to organize a vote of no confidence in Logan, and in the superb “Which Side Are You On?,” the coup fails spectacularly, an act of God (and Roman’s spinelessness winning out over his performative arrogance) sinking the would-be tactician’s perfect plan. The outcome of the vote was predetermined; there would be no show if the titular question of who succeeds Logan was answered so neatly. But the execution—Kendall racing through the gridlocked streets of New York feverishly panting into his phone—was flawless, and the potential it unlocked for the remainder of the season obvious.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best episode of Succession’s first season is the one that immediately followed such a decisive pivot. It’s also, notably, far more self-contained and episodic. “Austerlitz,” a PR stunt disguised as family therapy conducted at Connor’s namesake ranch, collects all the Roys in one room and begins the necessary, hilarious work of playing them off one another. It’s the first episode, for example, that makes explicit one of the most fascinating dynamics in the show: the fact that Shiv, the scion of a family that owns a barely veiled version of Fox News, makes her living as a Democratic political strategist, working for politicians who attack her father’s beliefs, and often the man himself. “Austerlitz” also gives the audience the most insight yet into Connor’s sad existence, cooped up in a castle with a paid companion who clearly can’t stand him.

The more distinct the Roys are made from one another, the more expansive Succession’s world gets, the better the show is for it. A clear break between Kendall and Logan, for example, yields a sharper, higher-stakes centerpiece than the tepid tension that preceded it: Kendall is now free to pursue his own misadventures, attempting in vain to reinvent himself as a hip tech VC who wears trendy sneakers and susses out startups. It’s a different kind of absurdly un-self-aware wealth than the Roy mothership, and Succession benefits from the diversity of targets; the more it can offer, the less likely it is the audience will get fatigued by any one brand of oblivious opulence. Similarly, the development of Shiv’s professional life, where she begins an affair with a coworker, and Tom’s tragic psychology—“I’m having the time of my life,” he shouts, unconvincingly, at his own bachelor party—the more weight their relationship carries. By the time the two of them have a tense conversation about Shiv’s suspected infidelity on the eve of their wedding, I found myself shocked to be experiencing something I never thought I would from Succession: genuine emotion.

But improving a show is only half the battle. There’s also the matter of getting people to pay attention. Succession’s ratings have not exactly been stellar, though under HBO’s subscription model, buzz really does count—and Succession’s buzz has only been accelerating since its premiere. I can’t help but think part of the reason so many critics, including myself, have been willing to give Succession time to find its sweet spot is because the show airs week to week. Rather than an imposing mass of eight-to-13 episodes, as we’d have to wade through if the show were on Netflix or Amazon, Succession has made itself available in increments, allowing the audience to watch its vision take shape in real time. Under Peak TV, the margin of error for a new show to prove itself is vanishingly thin. It’s refreshing to watch something like Succession get the benefit of the doubt, and room to grow.

Headed into Succession’s second season, I find myself actively anticipating spending more time with the same characters I once resented being trapped with. Some of the Roys have remained pointedly undeveloped, loose ends for future episodes to follow up on: Roman’s potential impotence or asexuality; whatever’s going on with Logan’s third wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass). Yet the rest have slowly acquired the detail and heft to make them more than just caricatures of the idle rich. The Roys are still heinous plutocrats, but they’re our heinous plutocrats.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.