HBO’s Succession Is the Crowning Achievement of Britain’s New CynicsPhoto courtesy of HBO TV Features Succession
When something “nice” happens to a character on HBO’s Succession—a rare event—that something is steeped in the grotesque darkness of abnormal human psychology. See, for instance, Roman Roy, a classic failson in the American Failson tradition, discovering to his joy that his father’s loyal aide-de-camp, Geri, is willing to verbally abuse him over the phone so he can get his rocks off (a feat he rarely manages with his beautiful girlfriend, who he met after she committed a lurid sex act with his brother-in-law). Or see Shiv, Logan’s daughter, who receives the long coveted promise from her father that she will one day take over the family’s media empire, quits her job as a successful campaign manager as a result, then watches her old man slowly withdraw the prize now that he has her hooked in an excruciating dance of family dysfunction.
Those are the “good” moments. And the bad moments? Then, a character might be made to scuttle across the floor on all fours, utterly degraded before his peers, while his father-in-law screams “boar on the floor!” and thousands of miles away his wife cuckolds him with an actor.
Suffice it say, this show is many things but “uplifting” is not one of them. The governing worldview here is profoundly, emphatically cynical, and I’d go so far as to say that like Roman Roy the writers are indulging in a kind of vicarious humiliation fetish. They love nothing more than to make their characters wallow in the turbid filth of their own greed and ambition, and the ones who “win” are inevitably the most cynical of all—men like Logan Roy, who can’t be bothered to pay even the faintest lip service to higher values.
It came as no surprise to me when I belatedly learned three facts about the creator, Jesse Armstrong:
1. He’s British
2. He created Peep Show
3. He’s part of Armando Iannucci’s increasingly influential circle
Succession takes place in America, is nominally about an American family, and it features mostly American actors; but it can only have been created by British minds. If you asked an American to create a TV show, and the only instruction you gave was that there must be a total dearth of “good guys,” that American would either fail at the task, or dump some shoddy Pulp Fiction knock-off at your door. (Unless—major caveat—the American was named Larry David.) The ethos of optimism is too firmly ingrained in our poor brains to create anything that is both cynical and realist, even in an age when optimism is practically grotesque, but the Brits have no such compunctions. Maybe it’s their longer history (we haven’t been humbled quite as often), or the fact that while we’re in a state of denial regarding our first major decline, they’ve already been there, done that. In any case, they have the ability to look at life with a coldness we can’t quite muster, and “redemption” isn’t high on the list of their artistic priorities.
A brief example: Look at the difference between the UK version of The Office and its American counterpart. Yes, there is sentiment in the British iteration, but that’s mostly secondary; the humor is hard-bitten and based on the cheerless humiliations facing office workers in the pre-apocalypse (it was only later that Ricky Gervais’ embarrassing maudlin side would truly flower). In the American version, the principals are better looking, the boss’s insecurities are more lovable than monstrous, and the message is consistently redemptive. We borrowed the form, but couldn’t quite grasp the ethos.
Now, forget Gervais and Merchant, because the likes of Jesse Armstrong are in a new class altogether. Peep Show makes The Office look like The Facts of Life, or something, in the way that it tosses its main characters from one mortification to another in their hopeless pursuit of love or even a trifling dose of dignity. And crucially, the main characters are bereft of even a quixotic nobility—they are just as base and shameless as anyone else, and in some cases more so. Their impulses are ugly, and if you’re looking for someone to “root” for, the very nature of the comedy implores you to look elsewhere.
The same is true for the Iannucci political comedies like The Thick of It, In the Loop, and Veep, but even more so because these shows don’t just trash individual humans, they also trash the world they’ve created. The system and the lone human are both loathsome, self-interested creations (they assert), and the only honest men are those vicious lupine creatures like In the Loop’s Malcolm Tucker who have given themselves over completely to the hell they inherited. It’s no shock, then, that the corrupt and corrupting world of media appealed to Armstrong, who insists that Succession is not the Americanized story of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, but who did write a script about Rupert Murdoch years ago in which the central dynamic was … family succession. You be the judge.
With writers like Armstrong and his ilk, you can count on a few things. First, they birth terrific insults. It would be impossible to watch an episode of Veep and an episode of The Thick of It and not realize they were created by the same people. The same is true of Succession, which is nominally a sort of comedy/drama hybrid, but which bears the unmistakable imprint of those predecessors. You can count on enormous casts, where even the smallest roles pack an enormous comedic punch. You can count on characters whose motivations, when you drill down to their core, range from indecent to unseemly, and where alliances are built on mutual greed and will fall apart at the drop of a hat. Decisions in these cynical worlds are never made based on love or respect or friendship or principle, but always on profit or power. (Principles, in fact, are openly mocked in the rare cases when they’re encountered.) Drama and comedy both exist in the space between someone’s expectations and the reality of what happens, and are heightened in the disastrous reactions to these twists of fate. And finally, these words are not lazily created; the knowledge base is comprehensive, as we saw in the depiction of the digital media outlet “Vaulter” earlier this season.
That’s the scariest part, in some ways: Jesse Armstrong did not arrive at his cynical artistic worldview like some teenage anarchist who owns a dozen bootleg Black Flag CDs. Before he was a comedy writer, he was a researcher for the Labour Party, and his cohorts—though they don’t all share an explicit political background—have the kind of experience and intelligence to build complete worlds. In short, these people are smarter than us, they know of what they write, and cynicism seems to be the ultimate general lesson they’ve gleaned from a lifetime in the know. How can we argue against that, especially when it’s imparted to us in such brutal fashion?
Maybe this is painting with a broad brush. The New Cynics don’t represent all of the U.K.—they have their cornballs, too—and the comedy they create doesn’t necessarily reflect their own private perspectives on worldly matters. But this latest British invasion does feel a little inevitable and a lot comprehensive. Succession is hilarious comedy, but it is also dismal comedy, which helps explain why it feels depressing to watch more than two episodes at a time. In 2019, it’s hard not to crave at least the promise of deliverance, but Armstrong and his relentless gang insist on force-feeding us the ugly truth. What it makes up for in sheer brilliance it lacks in nourishment—but like a good American I cannot stop eating.
Shane Ryan is the Politics Editor at Paste. Follow him on Twitter here.