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How Succession's set design and cinematography makes wealth look miserable

  • The HBO dramedy "does not make extreme wealth look extremely fun; undermining the myth that it is might be the show’s fundamental project," says Alison Herman. "The Roys may be comfortable, but they’re also miserable, a state of affairs made most explicit in the writing and acting. But as superb as the scripts and performances may be, they aren’t the only weapons a TV show has in its arsenal. Succession doesn’t just tell us Logan has spent his 80-plus years on this earth building, in his own brother’s words, an 'empire of sh*t.' It shows us the fruits of that labor, often in the form of the cramped helicopters, fluorescent-lit offices, and generic homes where the characters spend their time. In doing so, every frame subtly advances the master argument: that the trade-offs required to get and keep a spot at the top of the financial food chain are inherently not worth it." Herman adds that the Roys' "environs aren’t gilded or garish, but they are soulless, so devoid of texture and mess as to seem slightly inhuman. It’s an effect the show’s production team works carefully to create, vetting locations with an eye toward authenticity...Succession sacrifices aesthetic appeal for clarity of vision. Instead of playing up the perks of life as a billionaire, Succession employs a series of techniques to puncture the mystique." Succession cinematographer Patrick Capone explains: "We’re like the anti-Billions. The plush is there, but we don’t hammer it home." Set decorator George DeTitta Jr. adds: "I don’t try and cheat—to convince somebody that something’s expensive when it’s not. For the most part, the things that we’re choosing and using are things that might be purchased by somebody who has money and who is in that world." Herman adds: "Getting rich right is only half the battle. Succession then faces the age-old question of depiction versus endorsement: how to portray almost inconceivable wealth without cosigning the moral bankruptcy that comes with it. Luckily, these twin goals—staying true to life and not glamorizing the characters’ lives—aren’t at odds, at least as much as they may seem. Billionaires may be long on resources, but they’re often short on personal taste, or at least the time and inclination to express that taste through their many, many possessions. Instead, that task gets outsourced to various third parties. And when you’re buying clothes or decorating a space for your boss instead of yourself, there are different considerations at play than sentimental value or a specific aesthetic."

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    TOPICS: Succession, HBO, George DeTitta Jr., Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen, Nicholas Braun, Patrick Capone, Cinematography, Production Design, Set Dressing