Television

The TV Club, 2018

Entry 5: Succession was the perfect show about Trump, because it wasn’t about Trump.

A still from Succession.
Succession.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/HBO.

Pals,

Thank you for that glorious toss, Tara: Why yes! I will talk about Succession. Did I just write something to the effect of, woe to the show that gets good midway through its first season in this age of too much TV? Well, woe to that show—unless it gets as good as Succession. Created by Jesse Armstrong, the first episode of this series about a Murdoch-esque media clan was a slippery and not altogether convincing thing. Because, well, what was it, exactly? A comedy, a cringe comedy, a drama? The series’ genre-nonconforming ways made it hard to figure out, but once you accepted that it was all of these things some of the time, it was electric: riotously funny, extremely scathing, and every so often, a truly sad look at the congenital deformity and ludicrous privilege known as inherited wealth.

The fact that the show was not specifically about Trump—the show wasn’t modeled on him or his family—but also totally about the Trumpian milieu—corruption, entitlement, bad behavior—made it the perfect “it,” but “not it” thing, an escape that didn’t feel escapist. Toward the end of the summer, the dysfunctional Roy family, with its internecine bickering, overlarge fortune, and intergenerational trauma, achieved what almost no other show this year could: cresting buzz, momentary ubiquity, an arena-size chorus of “Watch this show!” The show is fun, but that feeling of collective viewership, now so rare, only made it more so.

Everyone on the series is great. The Roy children—paunchy-eyed, try-hard Kendall (Jeremy Strong); smart-aleck skeezoid Roman (Kieran Culkin); sympathetic, competent, secret head case Shiv (Sarah Snook); and Connor (Alan Ruck), dumber than a rock’s dumbest friend—were funny and awful and broken, and also, constantly breaking stuff. But the series did have one breakout buffoon: Tom Wambsgans, Shiv’s fiancé. As played by Matthew Macfadyen, Tom is a dervish of avarice, a maestro of sycophancy, a psycho with just enough bright-eyed, eager-beaver innocence to make him seem somehow pure. He’s a true believer in the church of greed, kissing ass, and adoring the heiress fiancée who is definitely not that into him. He was amazing.

If you need further proof of Macfadyen’s range, look no further than this year’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, which aired on Starz, was written by Kenneth Lonergan, and co-starred Macfadyen as the eventual romantic lead, a man who, like Tom, is an ardent capitalist, but is otherwise different in every particular. I am a huge softie for period dramas based on classic English novels—they are, for me, like pizza: How bad could one ever really be?—but I thought this miniseries starring Hayley Atwell as the free spirit Margaret Schlegel, who falls in love with a house that changes her life, was especially strong: modern, moving, bright, and ultimately, all about how truly connecting with people whose ideologies differ from our own takes effort and change, not just an agreement to politely disagree.

My love of this adaptation reminded me that for classics (that are out of copyright) the adaptations never stop. There will never be just one. And each one exists in a kind of gentle conversation with the source material—a companion, not a rival. I point this out, well, mostly to myself, who couldn’t help but think of the recent adaptations of Patrick Melrose and My Brilliant Friend as being somehow in competition with their inspiration. Don’t get me wrong, both of these adaptations were good—My Brilliant Friend very, I think; Patrick Melrose worked less well for me—but they seemed, to me, so much less good, less powerful, less personal than the books upon which they were based, books that are very different but both have incredibly powerful, infectious voices, the kind that ring in your mind’s ear. TV does a lot of things very well, but conveying a really distinctive narrative voice is not one of them. This may be part of the reason classic British novels adapt so well; their clean, omniscient, third-person narrators work much more like a camera.

It would have been better for the TV shows, in the case of both Melrose and My Brilliant Friend, if I had seen them without having read the books, or had read the books so long ago they were just a distant, fond memory—as was the case with John le Carré’s Little Drummer Girl. But then I wouldn’t have read the books, and I would never give up those experiences willingly. Still, Howards End makes me think I should chill out, try harder not to see any one adaptation as the adaptation, and just expect, if the book is good enough, for there to be others, each one a way to revisit the book’s fictional world without trying to demolish it. The books are always there for reading, and the show is something new, something else. This, in other words, is my New Year’s resolution to be totally Zen about the next season of My Brilliant Friend.

We have now name-checked a bunch of shows, but let’s elaborate on some of them. Looking at your Top 10 lists, I realize I have questions. Todd, could you tell me about your love of AMC’s Lodge 49 and NBC’s Superstore? Sonia, I know I bulldozed past The Good Place, but since you actually watched it, why was it, as you suggested on Twitter, the one truly great show this year? And also please elaborate on the tantalizing suggestion that The Americans has always been a flawed show, I have my popcorn ready. Tara, what is Detroiters? Also, all three of you loved Pose, which I so casually disparaged: What didn’t I get? And then there’s a show we all seemed to love, Killing Eve, low-hanging fruit for anyone who wants to make juice.

I’m thirsty,
Willa

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