Big, Big Shoes: What the End of Succession and Barry Means for the Future of HBO

TV Features Succession
Big, Big Shoes: What the End of Succession and Barry Means for the Future of HBO

It’s the end of an era at HBO. Succession and Barry, two critically acclaimed, Emmy-winning series that premiered within months of each other in 2018, will say goodbye together later this month. Throughout their parallel runs, the two shows have been characterized by top-tier writing, confident and dynamic directing, and acting so exquisite it almost borders on embarrassing (for everyone else). Over the course of four seasons each, they have defied the limits of their traditional genres, forcing viewers to rethink the boxes we try to put them in. The power dynamics at play and the push and pull between various members of the dysfunctional, approval-seeking Roys, a Murdoch-esque bunch who own and operate a major media conglomerate, means the satirical Succession is frequently and unapologetically TV’s best comedy. Meanwhile, the inherent darkness baked into Barry, about a repressed, self-hating Marine turned hitman (Bill Hader) who follows a target into an acting class in L.A. and decides in a moment of self-delusion that a change in profession will allow him to find peace and perhaps even redemption, has allowed it to drift casually into the realm of drama before swinging right back into surreal comedy moments later. 

Utterly unique and endlessly fascinating, the two shows have defined quality at HBO for half a decade. It would be disingenuous to imply that the premium network—one of the strongest, most recognizable and consistent brands in television—will become unmoored without them; The Last of Us, Euphoria, and The White Lotus remain on its schedule, and the Game of Thrones spinoff House of the Dragon can’t be ignored no matter how much any of us try. And yet, this May undoubtedly marks a significant turning point for HBO.

Co-created by Hader and Alec Berg, Barry made a splash when it debuted in March 2018. Premiering a year before the end of both Veep and Game of Thrones, the series initially stood out for the way it blended absurdist humor with bouts of violence. Succession, created by Jesse Armstrong, was similarly beloved by critics when it premiered less than three months later. Over time, curious viewers found and devoured both shows, but for most of their runs they probably would have been best classified as somewhat niche. They certainly have the prestige factor—they are two of the best-reviewed shows of the last five years and always perform well at the Emmys (Hader has twice won the award for Best Comedy Actor, while Succession was awarded Best Drama Series in 2020 and 2022 in addition to picking up an absurd number of acting nominations)—but ratings juggernauts they are not. This is not exactly uncommon for HBO, but it is in direct opposition to the last series that came to define the network.

Game of Thrones was massive, a bona fide global phenomenon that dominated pop culture and our lives for nearly a decade. These shows are not that. But after spending years watching a drama so driven by plot that every episode begat its own series of explainers and new theories to investigate—and after a final season so poorly done that it nearly ruined everything that came before—it’s been a relief to watch shows less concerned with posing questions and delivering shocking reveals. For Barry and Succession, it’s always been about character and storytelling execution. It’s not necessarily about what happens, but how it happens and why. There are obviously questions to be answered as the shows near their respective ends, but no one was waiting with bated breath to find out who would inevitably succeed Logan Roy (Brian Cox) as the head of Waystar Royco (despite what the media would try to tell you in the lead up to the final season), just as no one was on the edge of their seat waiting to see if Barry Berkman would eventually be caught and punished for his crimes. Like Better Call Saul, another critically acclaimed series that mastered the tightrope walk between comedy and drama (and whose final season is also eligible for this year’s Emmys), Barry and Succession are carefully orchestrated character studies about flawed individuals who desperately want things: to be loved, to be approved of, to be seen, to be forgiven. And now they’re going out on their own terms.

There are a lot of blessings to a series choosing to call it when it’s still at the top of its game; it minimizes the risk of eventual failure, of tarnishing one’s legacy. It also ensures that the cast and creatives are able to craft an appropriate and meaningful ending. Much has been written about the fact Succession could have gone another season, that Armstrong kept the possibility of returning alive for a while before ultimately deciding Season 4 would be the end (Barry is another story). And it likely would have been just as compelling if it had returned for one last go. But perhaps what’s most interesting about Succession and Barry both ending now, when they’re arguably better than ever, is the particular moment in time in which we find ourselves. 

As of May 2, the Writers Guild of America is involved in a labor dispute—the first strike since the 2007-08 TV season—as union members demand better pay (among other reasonable and important things) from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents several major Hollywood studios. There is no telling how long the writers’ strike will last, and while the TV landscape is considerably different today from what it was 16 years ago, it will no doubt have a profound effect on every aspect of the industry as productions continue to be shut down every day. Succession and Barry, both of which were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, will obviously be unaffected by the strike. But the same cannot be said for plenty of other HBO programs, like the new Game of Thrones spinoff A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Knight, which has paused its writers’ room (House of the Dragon will continue filming Season 2 in the U.K. because its scripts were reportedly finished “months ago”). It’s not as if HBO doesn’t have programs on its schedule to see it into the post-Succession-and-Barry era, but it’s not unreasonable to assume new seasons of those shows, which include The White Lotus and The Last of Us, will be delayed. And while it will likely be a while before the full ramifications of this strike will be felt, especially by viewers, it’s not the only change that’s happening right now either.

Beginning May 23, HBO Max, the streaming service launched in May 2020 by HBO’s then-parent company WarnerMedia (it has since merged with Discovery to form Warner Bros. Discovery), will be relaunched and rebranded as Max. Severing the platform’s connection to HBO—even if it is in name only (HBO programs will continue to stream on the service)—is a baffling marketing decision, to say the least. HBO is an identifiable brand with a reputation for quality television. Max (which is terrible for SEO, by the way) carries none of that same recognition. In fact, it’s more likely to call to mind Cinemax, which overcame its once pervy reputation to become one of Peak TV’s greatest experiments before it was essentially dismantled to make room for HBO Max. The choice to drop “HBO” from the service’s name is tied to the WarnerMedia and Discovery merger, as the platform will now feature shows previously found on Discovery+, which was Discovery’s homegrown service. Nevertheless, it remains a confusing choice on multiple levels. After all, it isn’t as if HBO Max originals were hurting the HBO brand by association. Peacemaker was a commercial and critical success; Minx was praised for its depiction of women in media before Warner Bros. Discovery canceled it in a cost-saving move (the buzzy ‘70s-set comedy was subsequently saved by Starz); and both The Flight Attendant and Hacks were/are Emmy darlings. If anything, HBO Max originals were only bolstering the HBO brand.

So between the writers’ strike, the rebranding, and the end of two of HBO’s biggest and best series, the network is staring down a road that, at least for now, is filled with unknowns at best and potholes at worst (and potentially deep ones at that, if there is any truth to the issues that allegedly plagued the network’s new series The Idol). Yes, there are series waiting in the wings. Yes, HBO is likely to survive this next chapter better than its competitors because it has money and it has shrewd, talented people calling the shots. But that doesn’t change the fact that the future is uncertain when it comes to filling the voids that will be left by Succession and Barry, especially as it pertains to the Emmys. 

The only other HBO show to be nominated for Best Comedy Series last year was Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which, despite its longevity, has its own expiration date (Hacks is an HBO Max original, so we’re not counting it for this exercise). The most recent comedy other than Curb and Barry to earn a nod was Insecure, which ended in December 2021. It never won. In fact, the last HBO program to win comedy series was actually the political satire Veep, way back in 2017. And it doesn’t appear that any of the other comedies on the network’s schedule, including The Righteous Gemstones and The Rehearsal, will be snagging nods anytime soon.

Meanwhile, on the drama side, with the exception of Zendaya, Euphoria hasn’t been able to capitalize on its popularity—it seems unlikely it will earn Best Drama Series honors after Succession ends. No doubt many are hoping the post-apocalyptic drama The Last of Us will be able to step into that role eventually (it has little to no chance of unseating Succession during its final season), but at this point it remains untested and therefore no one can say for certain, especially since the writers’ strike will create a ripple effect that will be felt throughout next year’s Emmy cycle, regardless of how long it actually lasts.

Of course, winning awards isn’t everything. Countless worthy TV shows have never received recognition despite being some of the best examples of the medium. But awards, whether we like it or not, lend credibility and imply quality. When you’re HBO, awards are part of the game. The network is known for consistently producing some of the best shows on television. Every year it is at or near the top of the list of networks with the most Emmy nominations. Its shows always appear on critics’ best of lists. There’s credibility to its one-time slogan “it’s not TV, it’s HBO.” But it’s likely going to be some time before we learn what is to come after Succession and Barry, until we discover what will truly define the next era of one of the most visible brands in all of television. But to quote everyone’s favorite wannabe visionary: HBO has got some big, big shoes to fill.

Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, Gold Derby, and, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin