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Succession Is the Antidote to Stan TV

Try as we might, it's hard to root for any of the Roys. Why that's a good thing.
  • With sibs like these, who needs enemies? Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin in Succession. (Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO)
    With sibs like these, who needs enemies? Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin in Succession. (Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO)

    In case there was any question about it, this past Sunday night sealed the deal — like Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Ted Lasso before it, HBO's Succession is TV's current show of the moment. Each week sees Twitter flooded with people discussing the new episode, either trying hard not to spoil the new episode's events or cavalierly unconcerned with such courtesies. During the week between episodes, we'll talk, enthuse, debate and meme. And, inevitably, some very determined fans will attempt to make a case for their favorite Succession character as the Best. The Best of the Roys. The Good One. The Least Evil One. The one where, if you had to choose one (for what purpose we do not know; marriage? trust falls?), you'd choose them. And then, just as inevitably, the next episode will come around and absolutely demolish any faith we had in that character being the Good One. On Succession, there are no Good Ones. That's the point, that's what makes it such a great show, and that's ultimately what makes Succession our single greatest antidote to the current era of Stan TV.

    If you're not sure what Stan TV is, you're soaking in it. We all are, and we have been at least since people began talking about their favorite TV shows on internet message boards and forums and text threads and social media. It's been the slow but steady march toward experiencing the artform of television through the prism of sports fandom. It's how Felicity became a showdown between Ben and Noel, and how Buffy became about shipping our titular vampire slayer with either Angel or Spike, and how one's appreciation of a given Lost episode hinged on whether you were a Jack fan, a Locke fan, or a Sawyer fan. It's watching a TV show by picking your faves and riding that bandwagon until the wheels fall off.

    To be absolutely clear, sometimes this can often be extremely fun. Roger Sterling fans were eating well when their guy got a spotlight turn on Mad Men. Shipping Jess and Nick on New Girl actually made that show more emotionally resonant for a lot of people. And obviously, it would be silly to watch most reality competition shows without any sense of a rooting interest. But then there's the dark side of Stan TV, especially when it comes to complex dramas that deal in difficult characters (you know, the dominant trend of TV dramas for two decades now). Breaking Bad became nearly unbearable to experience in a social media sphere because of how many fans became so invested in Walter White as a protagonist (as vile as he was) that they turned misogynistically toxic towards Skyler, his wife, when she threatened to upend his life of crime. A huge part of the reason why the final season of Game of Thrones became such a contentious and infuriating wrap to the series is because the idea of "winning" the game of thrones became such a consideration, even against our better judgments, that when characters we'd been rooting for all this time came to bad ends (i.e. Danaerys's heel turn), the show itself unavoidably soured.

    Enter into this morass of enthusiasm and combativeness the Roys of Succession. On its surface, Succession would seem to invite most of the classic tendencies of Stan TV: there is, at the heart of the show (in the title, even) a competition: who will take over Logan Roy's media empire? Will it be one of his four rotten but fascinating children? Maybe a dark horse outsider like Tom? A long-toiling servant like Gerri? Pick your horse and ride them to the finish line!.It's also a show with relationship drama, which feeds into Stan TV narratives as well, although I have a harder time imagining people were deeply invested in whether Shiv would leave Tom for that slimy little campaign staffer she was having sex with in season one. (That said: the Roman/Gerri shippers are real, and they are spectacular.)

    But to its immense credit, Succession actively resists being a show than can exist comfortably within the Stan TV continuum, and that's a big part of what's made it the best show on television. The invitation is there to pick a favorite Roy, but every week, the show makes it virtually impossible to stand by your choice. There is a strong impulse to feel sympathy for Kendall (Jeremy Strong) after seeing the way he's treated by his father, and imagining it's been that way his whole life. And then you see the way he acts and behaves when he's feeling even a little bit confident, and it is … horrifyingly cringe-y. Impromptu birthday raps, demanding cool tweets be written on his behalf, and the not inconsiderable moment when he left another man to drown in a pond. He even made a joke about being a murderer in the season three premiere. The era of Peak TV has made us all incredibly comfortable with rooting for killers and criminals as protagonists, and Succession creator Jesse Armstrong knows this; it's not enough that they do bad things, they have to be utterly unpalatable. Kendall killed a guy, yes, but he's also mortifyingly tone-deaf in the way he throws his money and power around.

    Take a tour around the rest of the Roy family and you'll find similar obstacles to standom. Shiv (Sarah Snook) was girlbossing her way through a season and a half as our best hope for a "good" Roy sibling, until she was ultimately faced with a choice between doing the right thing and keeping her family's business intact enough to provide her own wealth, and she made that choice pretty definitively, silencing a sexual-harrassment victim of her dad's company. This season, Shiv has not only been ruthless and amoral, she's also been pathetic, taking every professional humiliation her father has put on her and refusing to make a move against him. Roman (Kieran Culkin) may possess an impish appeal as the say-anything, noxiously quotable family vulgarian, but any dark enjoyment we might get at Roman's bad behavior becomes impossible to sustain as he willingly courts fascist politicians in order to please his dad.

    The fact that Succession takes place in the real world in a contemporary timeline is a big part of what makes it impossible to stan these characters. A show like Game of Thrones offered its audience a kind of blanket immunity where it could say these characters lived in ancient, brutalist times where the rules were different and ruthlessness was necessary to survive. It's harder to make apologies for Roman endorsing a neo-Nazi presidential candidate when the real-world implications of such a decision are so apparent.

    What Succession makes sure we never forget is that every character in this entire tableau is participating in a corrupt, corrosive, and evil enterprise. Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) isn't evil, she's just a very efficient cog in a corporation that is actively making the world worse. Even Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), the goofiest and most harmlessly stannable of all Succession's major players, is impossible to genuinely stan, as we saw in this most recent episode. The second he lands a quasi-girlfriend in Comfrey, he starts to try to pivot himself into a better relationship situation. He's a creep! They're all creeps. And Succession admirably makes it hard to watch through the prism of picking favorites, which makes it a better show and a better social viewing experience overall. Nobody's "good," nobody's right, and there's no point in riding into battle on behalf of fascist sympathizers and grown men who build a treehouse for their birthday party. We're free.

    Succession airs Sunday nights at 9:00 PM ET HBO and streams on HBO Max.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Succession, HBO, Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Jesse Armstrong, J. Smith-Cameron, Kieran Culkin, Nicholas Braun, Sarah Snook