With only one win for creator Jesse Armstrong’s writing, HBO’s Succession was a relatively minor presence at this past Sunday’s Emmy Awards. That likely won’t be the case next year. With its 2019 season opening to record ratings, laudatory reviews, and a greater presence in social media conversations, Succession has clearly come into its own in its sophomore year and is all but certain to be a leading contender in most drama categories at the 2020 Emmys. At which point an old argument is likely to resume: Should Succession be competing as a drama at all? Isn’t it actually a comedy?
Succession’s proper categorization has been the subject of much discussion since its debut last year. The story of the Roy family, the primary owners of the corporate empire Waystar Royco (which comprises a Fox News–like media network as well as amusement park and luxury cruise divisions), seems at first glance to be a prestige-drama staple: the King Lear–style power struggle. Four adult children—shrewd-but-broken Kendall (Jeremy Strong), even-more-shrewd-but-self-sabotaging Shiv (Sarah Snook), miserably-self-aware jackass Roman (Kieran Culkin), and irrelevant doofus Connor (Alan Ruck)—vie against one another over which will succeed their powerful-but-fading father, Logan (Brian Cox), as the head of the kingdom-corporation. Blue-chip prestige helmers like Mark Mylod direct scenes in multiple gorgeously art-directed locations, and the storylines delve into family trauma and power brokering in smoke-filled rooms. All of that seems to add up to a show that belongs in the drama category.
At the same time, though … it’s hilarious. The Roy children are constantly equivocating their way through situations where they’re clearly out of their depth. Audience-favorite supporting characters Tom Wambsgans (Shiv’s husband, played by Matthew Macfadyen) and Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) are already a bickering double act for the ages. Recapping sites and podcasts are spoiled for choice of withering put-downs to celebrate. More than one viewer has pointed out that Succession often plays like a bizarrely somber take on Arrested Development, with an analogous version of nearly every character from that celebrated sitcom. Considered on a macro episode-by-episode level, Succession is a dark tragedy about the abuses of the super-rich and the legacies of family dysfunction. But the minute-to-minute experience of watching it isn’t that different from Veep or Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The walls separating television comedy and drama—particularly the arbitrary marrying of running time to genre—have been breaking down on the half-hour side for some time now. The explosion of melancholy half-hours like Atlanta, BoJack Horseman, and the now-tainted but undeniably foundational Louie has already occasioned many “How is this even a comedy?” discussions. It’s not at all unusual for there to be more laughs in an episode of Billions than an episode of Fleabag. But Billions—which certainly devotes a lot of time to, say, the hilarious misadventures of Dollar Bill and Ari Spyros—seems to have instigated far fewer category debates than Succession, a show to which it is frequently compared. This is the heart of the confusion: Why do the funny parts of Succession not feel like “relief,” but rather a core part of its identity?
Fortunately, there’s an answer: It’s because Succession is one of the very few serious prestige dramas to depict power the way a half-hour comedy does. In a typical prestige drama, power is deployed via byzantine schemes by cunning, Machiavellian geniuses. The serious television power broker is a calculating figure who knows all the angles and is owed all the favors: Scandal’s Olivia Pope, House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, Power’s Ghost, Peaky Blinders’ Thomas Shelby—schemers who see 10 steps ahead and anticipate their enemies’ movies.
Half-hour comedies see power, and those who have it, quite differently. This is the world of the Bluths, of Selina Meyer, of Ari Gold and David Brent. In comedy, powerful people are unqualified jackasses who lurch from crisis to crisis, staying on top, sometimes barely, through a combination of luck, money, entrenched status, and pure meanness. They often imagine themselves to be strategic savants but always end up haplessly bluffing their way through boondoggles of their own making.
That’s a perfect description of the Roys on Succession. It can be hard to see at first, surrounded as they are by the trappings of luxury and the elegant lighting of a top-shelf drama, but the Roys are, well, a bunch of clowns. They tumble obtusely through every storyline, frantically attempting to appear brilliant in front of adversaries who clearly see right through them, and sometimes lose anyway.
Kendall’s attempts to usurp his father repeatedly fail in the most hilarious ways: Witness him, near the end of Season 1, getting stuck in a traffic jam on his way to the crucial board meeting where he plans to force his father out, desperately trying to whip votes over the phone as he runs down the street. Shiv, nominally the smartest Roy kid, attempts to play her father and her Bernie Sanders–esque boss against each other for her own advantage but only ends up trashing her relationships with both. Roman’s half-assed attempt at management training and Connor’s spectacularly ill-advised presidential campaign speak for themselves. Even Logan’s victories are brought about through a combination of vast wealth and bullying rather than any sort of strategic acumen—and they often don’t last for long
Consider the most recent episode, “Return.” While Logan does manage to pull a scheme over on Shiv, the idea for it actually comes from his adviser (and possible lover) Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter). Left to his own devices, Logan is far less nimble. When he wants to smack down Kendall, who he senses may be rebuilding his self-esteem and independence with a new romantic partner, he drags his son to the home of the family of the waiter whose death Kendall caused in the Season 1 finale, insisting that Kendall accompany him inside as part of an attempt to keep the family from pursuing legal action. Logan knows Kendall is fragile, that he could break down and confess at any moment, and that Kendall’s confession would be catastrophic for Waystar, but he prioritizes exercising cruel animal dominance over his children before even the welfare of his company. It’s something a slightly meaner George Bluth would do. These are not smart people. The Roys are inflated, self-regarding goofballs, fully belonging to the same fictional genus as David Brent and Malcolm Tucker. And as viewers, we’re trained to understand these sorts of figures as staples of comedy. If Succession were a drama, they’d be broody, calculating, brilliant—they’d be serious.
What distinguishes Succession from a traditional comedy is that when its characters screw up, they badly hurt themselves and other people. The fallout of their collapsing schemes isn’t wacky; it’s profoundly emotionally damaging, and sometimes worse. The hourlong format affords more room to showcase the appalling consequences of their wacky shenanigans. I suspect this is instrumental to Armstrong’s project: to illustrate that we can’t properly grasp our current reality until we understand that funny doesn’t equal harmless. A goofball who lashes out because deep down he knows he’s a goofball does no less damage than a deliberate villain. You can see this same awareness emerging in the Star Wars franchise, where Machiavellian brooders like Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine have been succeeded by petulant console-smashers like Kylo Ren.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a jaw-dropping profile of WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann that peaked with him firing 7 percent of his workers and then serving the remaining employees tequila shots and bringing in the rapper Darryl McDaniels (from Run-DMC) to perform for them. On one level, it’s undeniably hilarious. (Imagine if right after Kendall had mass-fired all the employees of the Waystar-owned website Vaulter, he brought in Tone Loc or a member of Def Leppard to perform as they cleaned out their desks.) But for people who just lost their jobs, getting comically fired doesn’t make it any less painful or panic-inducing—just as destructive or autocratic policies aren’t mitigated if the politician enacting them wears ill-fitting suits or has comical hair. To properly depict power in this day and age, you have to understand how the tropes of comedy can lead to the consequences of tragedy. As a character notes in the recent concluding episode of another HBO prestige series, Russell T. Davies’ Years and Years, “Beware those men, the jokers and the tricksters and the clowns. They will laugh us into hell.”