Every year, when the awards circuit machine starts rumbling back to life, TV fans are presented with some existential dilemmas. Which show deserves recognition? Is it truly a limited series if it gets a second season? How do you even begin to categorize Succession?
Fine, we snuck that last query in there, but as the lines between genres continue to blur it feels like the right time to return to this years-long debate.
Is Succession a drama or is it actually a comedy?
That we’re even debating this would have been unthinkable when creator Jesse Armstrong debuted it just a few years ago. A dark, nihilistic Shakespearean ode to complicated familial relationships of the bubbled-elite, Succession’s starting premise was a plot pulled straight from the pages of King Lear. An aging business magnate must decide which of his children is worthy of his throne atop a media conglomerate that holds devastating influence in the world of politics, entertainment, news, and more. Aided by the anxiety-raising gravitas of Nicholas Britell’s iconic score, those early trailers focused on the meaty, profanity-ridden performances of the show’s stellar cast — Bryan Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, and Sarah Snook.
The Roy siblings were vultures, willing to devour their patriarch in pursuit of power, influence, and money while Logan Roy (Cox) was the shrewd Machiavellian conductor, playing his brood against one another — a callous puppet master armed with a litany of well-timed expletive-laden barbs.
And when reviews of the show’s first season hit, they only reinforced that notion. Armstrong’s brain-child was labeled a “more serious Arrested Development,” a case study of power and privilege, and a moving look at the consequences of inherited generational trauma. In other words, Succession was poised to be the dark, dour drama that awards voters would eat up — the weekly binge one referred to when they wanted to impress their friends and co-workers. “Oh, you’re not watching Succession?” they’d say. “It’s only the smartest show on TV.”
And it is. But it’s also the funniest. That humor is just packaged so discreetly, wrapped in the unforgiving tissue of familial betrayal and all-consuming greed, taped together by a casing that protects its main characters from the expected real-world consequences their less-wealthy peers might face, that it’s only after the knife is slid in between our ribs that we recognize that it’s the sharp, cutting humor that’s driving the action.
It starts with Armstrong, who cut his teeth on British standbys like Peep Show and The Thick of It before migrating to the Yank’s version of political satire with Armando Iannucci’s Veep. In fact, as Indiewire first noted, Succession’s creation is really just Armstrong trying to make his idea for a British dark comedy originally titled “Bad Sugar” translate across the pond. That series only achieved pilot status, but its bones — “sexy and scheming heirs of a wealthy mining mogul as they battle each other to become the next head of his fracking empire” — make up the skeleton of Succession’s core dramatic beats. Armstrong’s writer’s room is filled with Veep and The Thick of It alumni and his producing partners include Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (a former SNL head writer turned Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director who directed the show’s pilot).
So that’s the on-paper proof that there’s more riotous humor to this show than one might expect. But to get the full measure of how Succession toys with those ill-defined lines between drama and comedy, you need to investigate how it tells its story — and how that story has been received by fans.
Yes, the thread running through each episode, from season to season, seems to be this marathon grab for power, and in any other, strictly dramatic undertaking, that story arc would resolve or evolve over the course of a show’s run. But, in what feels more like a sitcom-style move, Succession uses the backdrop of a hostile takeover to continuously repeat beats. A son betrays his father. A father betrays his son. A family argues, turns on each other, then bands together to protect its carefully cultivated public image. It’s a loop, one that allows Armstrong and company to dive deeper into character motivations and unpack the layers of relationships between the core cast in the way a serial comedy might. We come away, not with a clearer picture of what’s going to happen in the story, but of who the people who populate it really are — how their quirks, insecurities, and selfish desires might alter that course.
And if Succession’s directional outline mimics that of long-running comedy shows, its dialogue doubles down. There’s a rhythm to how the characters on the show talk — weaponizing corporate-speak and hurling linguistic smart bombs at breakneck speed — that often challenges our idea of how a drama is supposed to sound. Succession favors a blunt mallet and the freedom to whack us over the head again and again and again with outrageous lines that only disgust and amaze as time drags on — like a bruise that smarts worse days later.
That “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” staccato is what’s driven fans to make compilation odes on Youtube, celebrating the brilliant and varied insults of each season. In a normal drama, you might remember a scene, in Succession, you remember the lines — a defining comedic trait if ever there was one. Whether it’s Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfayden) musing on how syphilis is really the Myspace of STDs or Siobhan Roy making a dig at her brother’s “date rape” cologne, the show’s most viral moments are born from its comedic DNA.
And that humor infects major relationships too. Cox’s Logan Roy is a soured, pessimistic tyrant who distrusts everyone around him, including his own children. He constantly makes decisions that force you to root against him. And yet, even he gets laughs — often for the most repugnant behavior. (Remember Boar on the Floor, anyone?)
Kieran Culkin deploys snark and quick-witted comebacks like they’re Roman Roy’s only true life skill, while Snook’s Shiv self-medicates amidst the chaos within her family with copious amounts of sarcasm. Strong’s Kendall, a subservient daddy’s boy stuck between his own ambition and his overwhelming fear of his father, plays his feebleness and indecision for laughs while Macfayden and Nicholas Braun (Cousin Greg) tap into the inherent romantic-comedy roots of their fraught bromance.
But because this humor is so fleeting, so quickly delivered, so agonizingly embarrassing for these characters, so cringe-worthy — we don’t see it for what it is, an attempt to humanize these wholly deplorable beings, to bring a story so far removed from the realms of our own middle-class existence we couldn’t possibly relate or invest in this family without it. We need to be able to laugh at the Roys’ antics, to cackle at the misfortunes they reap on themselves, to gleefully rejoice in their failings because otherwise, the show would lose its satirical underpinnings and become a grim commentary on the consequences of capitalism, an all-too-real portrait of how generational wealth continues to shape the ugliest parts of society. It’d be just another drama about rich people behaving badly.
So no, Succession is not a drama peppered with comedic beats like the world of TV criticism and Emmy voting would have you believe. It’s just the opposite: a comedy that uses dramatic storytelling to add a sense of surreal satire to its humor.
Or maybe it’s something altogether different, a show that exists between those two lines — a bleak, deliciously wicked character study filled with a family of Shakespearean Bluth knockoffs intent on confusing the hell out of awards season voters. That is until, at some point, someone realizes that putting shows like Succession (and Atlanta, Master Of None, and on and on…) in one category or the other misses the point of what makes them great — their ability to do both exceptionally well.