There’s perhaps no television genre more critically derided than the soap opera. When a critic calls something “soapy” — whether it be a film, a TV show, or a book — more often than not it’s meant to serve as a kind of shorthand that the object in question isn’t worth taking seriously.
To be sure, there have been efforts to rescue the term from the swamp of opprobrium. Back in 2013, Akash Nikolas wrote in The Atlantic about the need to both understand Mad Men as a soap opera and to see that as a good thing. Along the way, he suggested that the same could be said of The Sopranos, and Nikolas’ point can easily be extended to any number of other more recent dramas, particularly those airing on HBO, including Big Little Lies and The Undoing.
Which brings us to Succession, now in its third season on HBO. Of all of the premium cable networks, HBO has historically done the most to distance itself from what we’ve traditionally considered “television,” both in word (for years, its marketing slogan was “It’s not TV, it’s HBO”) and in deed.
In 2019, Emily VanDerWerff of Vox wrote that HBO “built its reputation by gussying up genres that are often derided as facile or empty [and] applying just enough prestige to make them worthy of discussion at dinner parties.” She went on to point out that Succession owes a great deal to the soap operas of years past, especially those of the primetime variety, like Dynasty and Dallas. As is so often the case, one gets the sense that VanDerWerff can’t quite shake the idea that there’s something vaguely shameful about the soap opera, and something equally shifty about HBO’s desire to upgrade the genre.
To be sure, there is a lot of soap in Succession, beginning with its central conflict between media magnate Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his second-eldest son and heir-presumptive, Kendall (Jeremy Strong). The two men are frequently at odds, with Logan seeming to take delight in proving to Kendall just how reliant he is on his father’s goodwill and largesse for his career success, and Kendall seeking to prove him wrong.
There are equally poisonous dynamics at play among Kendall’s siblings, all of whom are in competition for their father’s attention, and all of whom bring their own special (and often salacious) dysfunctions to the table. Youngest brother Roman (Kieran Culkin) develops a sexual dynamic with general counsel Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) that relies on her (consensual) domination of him, while sister Siobhan (Sarah Snook) has a deeply dysfunctional relationship with her husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) who, in turn, develops an equally troubling dynamic with Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun).
And, like any good soap opera, there are plenty of twists and turns and reversals of fortune along the way. Kendall, for example, relapses into addiction and ends up committing involuntary manslaughter, a horrible event that pushes him back into his father's arms. Then there’s the most notable reversal when, at the very end of the second season, Kendall makes his final move to outwit the old man and bring down his empire. If he can’t be the heir, then he’ll see the whole thing destroyed.
Still, for as soapy as its plot and character development is, the series goes out of its way to imbue itself with a type of aesthetic realism that itself has become a hallmark of HBO’s brand. From its laser-sharp dialogue to its detailed art direction and often manic cinematography, the series has all the trappings that viewers have come to expect from “quality TV.”
Brian Cox brings his signature searing energy to Logan Roy, a man who has an unassailable sense of his own righteousness and doesn’t especially care how many of his family members he has to crush in the process. The rest of the cast is equally polished, eschewing the “excessive” or “obvious” acting choices associated with the common soap.
So what are we to make of all this? A cynic might say that Succession is just the latest example of HBO wanting its viewers to have their cake and eat it, too, indulging in all of the “guilty pleasures” of the soap opera while still clinging to the idea that, as VanDerWerff puts it, they’re “classy people.”
I would argue, however, that HBO is onto something in its refusal to resolve the fundamental tension between the visceral pleasures of lowbrow culture on one hand and the cerebral appeal of the highbrow on the other, and the network clearly understands that such a tension can, ultimately, produce great drama without losing sight of the human aspect of the story. Succession, through its artful blending of soap opera tropes and the aesthetic features of the prestige drama, explores the darker side of human relationships. Given its success, it’s clear that there continues to be a healthy appetite for just such hybrid storytelling.
Succession airs on HBO Sunday nights at 9:00 PM ET.
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Dr. Thomas J. West III is a freelance writer and co-host of the Queens of the B's podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.