HBO's Succession proves that comedy can conquer the world when it's in disguise

(Image credit: HBO)

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For comedy fans, the opening credits of Succession have long represented a minute and a half of jarring juxtaposition. The shots of towering New York skyscrapers inspire a solemn awe. Nicholas Britell’s accompaniment deploys lurching strings to a hip hop beat, an arresting blend of high drama and modernity. And in faded home camera footage, an unsmiling man grips his daughter’s shoulders like an owner, not a father. The message is clear: this is to be a story of power and neglect.

Yet the names that pop up beside these images don’t match. There are executive producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, star and director of Anchorman, the millennial model for daft, brash comedy. And here comes Jesse Armstrong, co-creator of Peep Show, for years the UK’s favorite alternative sitcom. These are not the people you expect to see making prestige drama on HBO.

Watch enough Succession, however, and you might come to the conclusion that its creators never stopped making comedy at all. Despite its enormous stakes and emotional body blows, the show still abides to the structure and rhythms of far lighter entertainment.

The biggest clue lies with the Roys. Since the ‘50s, when living rooms were first furnished with televisions, sitcoms have acted as mirrors for family life. In Logan, you can see Albert Steptoe of Steptoe and Son – a relic of a dirtier age of business, forever thwarting the aspirations of his children and undermining their confidence. It’s a classic recipe for comedy with a poignant, painful edge.

Showrunner Jesse Armstrong comes from Britain’s alternative comedy scene, which despite its distance from the laugh tracks of the mainstream, clings to the set-up of sitcom. Even The Young Ones, the anarchic student sitcom that shocked UK audiences in the ‘80s, respected the familiar roles of family comedy, with hippy Neil the beleaguered mother, suited Mike the distant father, and Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson squabbling away as their de facto children. Fresh Meat, the student house comedy Armstrong created with regular writing partner Sam Bain, could be seen as its successor.

Sitcom thrives thanks to its reset button: no matter what events transpire during the course of an episode, you can be sure the principal characters will be back at their starting positions when the next one begins. So it is with Succession. No matter how certain Logan Roy’s downfall may seem, his heir apparent is always left disappointed. Yet, in the mode of drama, the characters don’t forget the prior episode – their exasperation builds and eventually boils over.

Unlike a certain kind of sadcom that rose to prominence in the 2010s, Succession isn’t afraid to be funny. In fact, it’s stuffed full of jokes – like the former call girl Willa, sticking the knife into brown-nosing Tom: “At least I’m only getting fucked by one member of this family”. Or Shiv asking her morally challenged brother Roman if the cologne he’s wearing is “Date Rape by Calvin Klein”. Or the moment when Congress challenges Tom to explain a series of bullying emails sent to his assistant, titled ‘You can’t make a Tomlette without breaking some Gregs’. The gag rate lends itself to compilation videos on YouTube, but never derails the plot with punchlines.

The creative swearing in particular – “Buckle up, fucklehead” – marks out Succession as a relative of The Thick of It. Armstrong wrote for the influential political satire in the ‘00s (and later for HBO's Veep, its successor), and it’s an instructive point of comparison. Episodes of The Thick of It tended to give its characters a simple enough goal – rolling out a new policy, say – and then devolve into panicked farce as that goal rolled down a hill and out of sight. You can see that pattern play out many times over in Succession.

Armstrong is clearly fascinated by poor communication: Babylon, the show he created with Bain and Danny Boyle, focused on the PR, or ‘babble’, of London’s Metropolitan Police Service. Comedy, it turns out, is a crucial instrument in portraying people in power – their tantrums, their dereliction of duty, their lack of Machiavellian forethought.

“If you left out the comic element, the petty bad decisions, the crappy corporate structure, the shitty artistic choices, the humiliations – then you’d be doing PR for them,” Armstrong said of Succession in a Guardian interview. “Comedy has to be part of how you portray these people.”

The jokes, then, are part of what makes the characters human, and lend Succession the sense that it takes place in the real world. Media moguls, we’re told, treat our governments as personal playthings, and choose the thoughts to pump into our parents’ brains through newspapers and televisions. The stakes of the decisions made by the Roy family, no matter how ludicrous or arbitrary, couldn’t be higher.

Compare that to Avenue 5, the latest show from The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci. Avenue 5 shares a potty mouth with Succession, and even a couple of archetypes: Zach Woods’ gawky head of customer relations, like Nicholas Braun’s cousin Greg, can be traced right back to Chris Addison’s lanky lacky Ollie in The Thick of It. 

Yet since all the action of Avenue 5 takes place in the literal bubble of a lost spaceship, there are no consequences beyond its walls. In Succession, by contrast, it’s easy to imagine that the irresponsible management of an international conglomerate like Waystar Royco will somehow impact us, the citizens who are subject to them.

As the show’s title implies, Waystar is a kingdom, and the language used reflects those stakes – managers aren’t fired or removed from their positions, they’re “killed”. When Kendall’s plot to depose Logan is referenced, it’s described as an attempted regicide. Perhaps that comes from writers like Lucy Prebble, a playwright known for serious dramas before joining the Succession writer’s room.

“I bring a sensibility of putting blood on the page,” she told the Rule of Three podcast. “It is a very, very dark comedy that fills an hour. The fusion comes from those two sensibilities meeting.”

Most of Succession’s writing room is made up of career comedy scripters; and their past work may have been wrongly dismissed as slight and frivolous. But that same grounding is exactly what makes Succession such a frightening and serious watch, since it shows powerful executives to be just as fragile, ego-driven, and self-destructive as Alan Partridge. Only unlike Alan, they hold the “socio-economic health of several countries” in their hands.

All it took was the trappings of drama – a pompous title sequence, a lingering camera, and Brian Cox – to sneak their form into the most respected sphere of television. And HBO is all the better for it.

Succession is streaming now on HBO Now and HBO Go, and will be streaming on HBO Max from May 27. Succession season 3 is expected to release later in 2020, though production has been halted by the current health crisis.

Jeremy Peel
TRG features editor

Jeremy is TRG's features editor. He has a decade’s experience across publications like GamesRadar, PC Gamer and Edge, and has been nominated for two games media awards. Jeremy was once told off by the director of Dishonored 2 for not having played Dishonored 2, an error he has since corrected.