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Succession has an antihero show problem of having evil characters who aren't despicable enough

  • "If the heyday of the antihero shows proved anything, it’s that there’s a built-in trap when it comes to shows about bad people," says Lili Loofbourow. "It is basically that badness, whether it registers as people being immoral or amoral or otherwise unmoved by the limits 'good' people habitually accept, is incredibly fun to watch. It can (in shows like The Sopranos, for instance) be richly compelling: Most of us have some badness at our rotten little cores, so it’s pleasurable and interesting to see the complicated, compromised, and less savory parts of humanity—the parts we normal people spend a lot of energy keeping down—represented. Finally, badness is an engine. Breaking Bad is about a man who struggled to be good but felt emasculated by virtuous passivity then learning to revel in the momentum badness afforded him. The point is this: Badness makes a lot prestige TV fun, and if the antihero experiments were implicitly testing just how bad a protagonist would have to be in order for audiences to reject him, the answer was frequently never. Forced to choose between morality and entertainment, the bulk of viewers tend to choose the latter unless they’re absolutely beaten over the head with a protagonist’s irredeemability—if he confesses, say, as Walter White did in Breaking Bad, that everything he did wasn’t really for his family but for him, because he liked it. The results of the experiment are in and so prestige antihero shows, in this era of television, must contend with the audience’s well-documented instinct to reflexively sympathize with the charismatic evildoers if their adventures are the ones centered onscreen. But the solutions to that genuinely interesting storytelling problem haven’t really evolved, and I’ve been wondering whether Succession is in this regard more of the same or an exception. I suggested at the start of Season 3 that Succession might be a sitcom dressed up as a drama—that it was repetitive rather than propulsive and that this ought perhaps to be seen as a strength rather than a flaw. Still, the season is recycling beats to a surprising degree: Gerri is once again being asked to be a placeholder CEO, Shiv once again gets invited in only to be disempowered by Logan, and Logan’s health once again incapacitates him for long enough—in the midst of a company crisis—that his children have to make decisions he’ll hate. Even the decision the kids make without him is the same: involve Stewy (and Sandy) more deeply in the company. What this merry-go-round does, just in terms of negotiating the 'badness' problem, is keep the stakes low: It prevents characters from getting what they want but it also limits the impact of their amusing and witty faults to a contained and rarefied space. The board. Fancy apartments. Private jets. Yachts." As Loofbourow notes, The Sopranos confronted its problem of the audience sympathizing with its evil characters by having them do increasingly unspeakable things. "Succession does occasionally deploy that strategy too; it has mostly reminded us of the Roy family’s cruelty by inserting regular examples of their total invulnerability to and contempt for ordinary people," says Loofbourow. "But the glimpses of the havoc they wreak on those populations are extremely brief." Sunday's episode, says Loofbourow, may change that. "What It Takes," she says, "introduces something Succession has (in its capacity as a sitcom, anyway) studiously avoided: stakes that extend beyond its hermetic corporate world."


    • Succession delivered one of its best-ever episodes Sunday by leaning into the Murdoch empire comparisons

      "'What It Takes' is an exceptionally funny and chilling chapter of a show that specializes in those polarities," says Inkoo Kang. "There’s a joke-machine velocity to the humor, which might only be fully appreciable upon a second viewing, given the speed of the dialogue and the resulting crosstalk. But it’s also a deeply tragic window into the impulses of the Roys, which are seldom not petty, fleeting or underconsidered. Theirs is a power no single individual or family should possess — not least because it’s one that’s utterly self-absolving of responsibility. And for once, (creator Jesse) Armstrong and his writers don’t shy away from the chaos and destruction in the larger world, beyond his realm, that a single glance by Logan can set into motion."

    • Tom and Shiv have the only real relationship on Succession, but their marriage is entirely corrupted by the family business: "Shiv and Tom’s relationship is so intriguing that real-life marriage counselors and Vanderbilts alike have commented on everything that’s wrong with it," says Sophie Gilbert. "...They have no palpable chemistry. When Tom made sexual overtures to Shiv in last week’s episode, 'Retired Janitors of Idaho,' she recoiled, even before he revealed that he’d been secretly tracking her menstrual cycle. Virtually every interaction between them is governed by the exercising or the amalgamation of clout. Shiv has repeatedly tested hers by demanding things Tom isn’t comfortable with: an open relationship, a threesome, even that he visit Logan’s tailor for his suits. Tom, for his part, capitulates over and over, knowing full well that standing up to Shiv on behalf of his own desires means losing her, and losing everything that comes with being a Roy."
    • Kieran Culkin doesn't want to know what's going on between Roman and Gerri: "It’s fun," he says. "I like the fact that she’s dating and he gets really jealous. That seemed to make all the sense in the world to me. You asked earlier about Roman getting so upset about his mother getting remarried. Those things are connected. I try not to analyze it too much, because it makes sense. I don’t think Roman knows what it is. If he doesn’t know, I don’t know. It’s the same when it comes to his sexuality in general. I don’t really want to know what that is. It’s tough doing interviews to talk about the thing with Roman and Gerri, because it’s like, I don’t know! But it just makes sense."
    • Alan Ruck discusses Connor Roy's presidential ambitions: "At this point in his life, he’s never held a job," he says. "I think it’s starting to get to him that nobody needs him anywhere. He has a yearning for people to be like, 'Hey, when Connor gets here, we can start.' Also, it’s the one job that would make his father sit down and say, 'Wow, good job. Well done.' If I ran for state assembly, I don’t think he’d be so impressed. Connor does suffer from some delusional disorder. I think in his mind, if he was able to nab the top spot in the nation, it would be something that would finally make his father sit up and take notice."
    • Did Ruck draw any parallels from Trump?: "We all lived through that, so I don’t think we should every take anything for granted," says Ruck. "The country is so big and so fractured — there are millions of people, who you and I will probably never rub elbows with, living life on a different wavelength. There are a lot of people who get swept under the carpet, and they’ve been ignored for a long time. People think because they’re American, all their dreams are supposed to come true, whether they work for them or not. There are a lot of people out there who are entitled but have also been neglected, and they’re really pissed off. I think if somebody comes along, as Trump did, and said, 'You people are good people. You know what the problem is? These people over here.' This is nothing new. This is a page out of the Nazi playbook. When you have a bunch of disenfranchised people and they’re mad and they’re looking for somebody to blame and someone shows up, there you go. I don’t know exactly how Connor is going to pitch himself. I’m waiting to find out from Jesse Armstrong and the gang which way they’re going to twist this. I think Connor’s learning that to get ahead in this family, you have to play dirty, and I think he’s becoming more willing to do that."
    • Ruck on driving in President Biden's motorcade: Ruck says he was approached by a friend from Biden's advanced team to volunteer as a press van driver during the president's visit to California in September. "I went through some vetting and did a COVID test and all that stuff," he says. "I was told to report down in Long Beach, and I did. It was a lot like being on a movie set," he said. "There was a lot of sitting around, and then all of a sudden, it was like, 'Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!' I enjoyed just driving along and not having to stop for any red lights with the cops flying by on motorcycles. It was very exciting. (Laughs.) Then the next morning, we all got a little photo op with the president. It was very brief. We had masks on; we didn’t shake hands. He didn’t know who I was, but he walked up, and he said, 'Good to see you, pal!' I said, 'Well, good to see you,' then click. As they’re pushing me away, he says, 'Thanks for your service,' and over my shoulder, I said, 'Thanks for all you do.' And that was it. It was pretty quick. I have a picture of me with (Biden), but I’m not allowed to show it to anybody until the White House Press Office says it’s OK. So I guess I would have to write for permission and ask can I show this anywhere. The answer might be no. (Laughs.)"
    • The Roys use food as weapons: Food exists on Succession only to create more misery, says Amy McCarthy. "The Roy family manages to fashion simple experiences like eating a meal with family and surprising someone with pastries into weaponry, and that works beautifully into a narrative that is deeply concerned with the trappings of power and privilege," says McCarthy. "The Roys have helicopters, vineyards, estates, and access to the world’s finest delicacies; they can get away with heinous crimes and pass the responsibility to others as if it’s the bad card in a game of Old Maid. But what is such privilege and finery worth when food is flavorless, donuts come at unthinkable strings attached, and you still don’t get a kiss from daddy?"

    TOPICS: Succession, HBO, Alan Ruck, Jesse Armstrong, Kieran Culkin, Food and TV

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