When it comes to television shows, I am often late to the party. I watched my first ever episode of The Office in May of 2020 during the coronavirus quarantine, seven years after the show's finale aired. It was a similar story for me and The Sopranos, which I watched in 2018 and thus 11 years after that iconic last episode. I did a bit better, though, with Succession, the HBO series about the fictional Roy family who owns the media conglomerate Waystar Royco that was recently renewed for a fourth season. At the urging of a couple of friends who insisted that my work in news media necessitated my tuning in (and would perhaps also catalyze a review), I deviated from my typical resistance to the current and watched.
Like a number of recent big-budget television programs, whether that be Netflix's House of Cardsor the original Narcos, Succession captures the viewer's attention rather quickly, and I am confident this is true even for viewers who have no particular fixation on the media industry. Like in House of Cards, scenes are masterfully and memorably shot, and the opulence on display, as Sue Ellen Mischke would say, allows one to "catch a glimpse of high society."
The writing, however, is not exactly exceptional. Logan Roy, the patriarch with arguable parallels to the real-life Rupert Murdoch, lacks Frank Underwood's bon mots, typically preferring profanity over witticisms. The line most frequently written for him appears to be "F— off." With a few exceptions, which I will discuss below, the dialogue is rather forgettable, and one cannot help but conclude that Jesse Armstrong, Succession's creator, is no David Chase.
Nevertheless, the show still held my attention at least until the latter portions of season two. (I had begun watching seasons one and two in preparation for watching the third season, which was released in October and was the proximate cause of my friends imploring me to watch.) The show's premise -- rivalrous siblings competing for the helm of the family company and the intrafamily politics this entails -- is interesting enough. But this storyline's execution is where Succession, in time, would lose me. More on that later.
Also in the show's defense and of particular interest to me were a few exchanges that were also quite correct in their descriptions of the current media industry. In one instance, Roman, Logan's puerile third son, describes his father, who is depicted as 80-years-old in season one, as "an elderly local man [who] doesn't realize he's getting butt-f—ed by Google." Delicate phrasing aside, this is largely true for most real-life media executives whose companies have resisted certain pivots. And season one also featured another line that betrayed much about news media and its business models when Roman describes Waystar RoyCo.'s flagship network, ATN, looking for content to "make our viewership angry enough to buy pharmaceuticals."
My favorite exchange in the two seasons of Succession I watched, however, was between Logan and Democratic Pennsylvania Senator Gil Eavis, who at one point employs Logan's daughter, Shiv, and is clearly based on actual Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. The scene takes place on the eve of Shiv's wedding and features the first in-person meeting between Logan and Eavis. The two do not exactly like each other, given Eavis' desire to use his Senate post to investigate Waystar Royco, which is fueled by Eavis' distaste for ATN's conservative bent. They meet on the stairway, converse briefly, and exchange their respective thoughts on political economy. In response to what Logan sees as Eavis' utopian visions that do not adequately account for how people really are, he says, "Well, I didn't make human nature, but I do know what they read and what they watch. I make my nut off what people really want. Don't tell me about people. I'd go flat broke in a week if I didn't." The fact that this came from the mouth of a fictional character notwithstanding, it is a critical reminder to all of us, myself included, who sometimes ask media companies to do things other than appeal to consumers' desires, as base or sensationalist as such sometimes can be.
So why am I unable to continue watching despite my above-mentioned praise for aspects of the show and despite Succession'snear-universal critical acclaim? Part of it is the characters. With the exception of Logan's simple-minded and likable nephew Greg, whose character fits the dramatic archetype of the jester or fool and came out of the woodwork to join the family drama, most of the characters are simultaneously one-dimensional and grating. And with the cliché of the son less talented than his superstar father very much on display, Logan's children, who are avidly competing to succeed him, are all so thoroughly unimpressive and, thus in practice, uninteresting to watch. In fairness, perhaps that's the point; otherwise, a clear successor might have emerged, but the cardinal lesson of storytelling 101 still holds: Characters are everything.
But what I really could not stomach any longer was the exhausting series of betrayals and double crossings. At first, it was entertaining enough to see Logan and his children try to outsmart one another, form constantly shifting alliances, and seek to curry favor only to later turn the knife. (The choice of the name Shiv for Logan's daughter, for instance, isn't exactly subtle.) But what ultimately proved to be so irritatingly unrealistic was that Logan Roy, who is depicted as one of the great businessmen of the century who grew up in poverty in Scotland before founding one of the world's largest companies, would be so unable to learn from his mistakes and would so persistently trust individuals, very much including his own children, who repeatedly betray him.
What one notices time and again with the big-budget television series that have dominated airwaves and discussions over the past two decades of television's renaissance is that it remains difficult to be consistently good. House of Cards had an excellent first two seasons before a vertiginous drop off; with Ozark, season two was much slower than season three. And this is what sets apart those few enduring, iconic shows such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, that arguably only have a single lackluster episode each.
I might be the odd man out, given that critics seem unable to get enough of Succession, and maybe the show gets better in its third season, but I just can't bring myself to continue following the Roy family's tiresome and unrealistic maneuverings and betrayals.
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The opinions expressed here are the author's views and do not necessarily represent the views of MediaVillage.com/MyersBizNet.