How ‘Succession’ Captured the Zeitgeist of Our Mean, Bitter Times | Commentary

Sunday’s final episode of HBO’s darkly satirical series marked the end of an era — at least on TV. The rest of us have to deal with reality for a while longer

"Succession" (Credit: HBO)

If you haven’t yet seen Sunday’s series finale of “Succession” — spoiler alert! — here are some things that didn’t happen. 

The screen didn’t suddenly go black while the Roy family ate onion rings at a diner in New Jersey. Roman didn’t experience an epiphany at a hippy retreat in California and dream up an iconic Coca Cola jingle. Kendall didn’t wake up in Suzanne Pleshette’s bed.

Exactly where “Succession’s” last episode will rank in the litany of TV’s greatest finales is for future pop culture historians to decide, assuming pop culture historians even bother to pay attention to that sort of thing in the future. Let’s face it, series finales — like the ones that ended “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “Newhart” — just don’t pack the same punch they used to, even for smart, buzzy, satirically dark dramas produced by the network formally known as HBO. 

Only about 2.9 million people tuned into to the newly christened Max to say buh-bye to the Roy clan last Sunday night. That was an historically strong finish for a series that only occasionally poked its head above 2.5 million viewers over its four-season run, but still. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” drew about seven times the audience for its finale back in 2019. Go back even further, to network TV’s heyday, and finales for shows like “Friends” and “Seinfeld” were pulling 20 to 30 times those numbers.

Game of Thrones, Courtesy of HBO

Still, despite linear television’s ever-diminishing clout, “Succession” managed to pull off something that’s exceedingly rare for a TV show these days — it got people talking. This super slick, often sick C-suite melodrama may not have drawn nation-uniting, moon-landing-sized ratings, but it clearly captured a big piece of the Zeitgeist, generating tons of what used to be called “water-cooler conversation” — what’s now mostly known as tweeting — especially among the chattering classes on the coasts.

Part of the reason for that was obvious: The show was terrific. Savagely written (by Jesse Armstrong and his corporate-slang slinging team of scribes) and spectacularly acted (by Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook and especially Kieran Culkin, whose every scene was a masterclass in snotty little brother snark), it arrived on HBO in 2018, just as “Game of Thrones,” the network’s biggest hit ever, was winding down. In many ways, it was a natural replacement. Both shows were built on essentially the same narrative architecture — a familial battle for power. But instead of dragons and White Walkers, “Succession” gave us private jets and Swedish internet billionaires.

Unlike “GoT,” though — in fact, unlike just about every other show in the history of TV — “Succession” didn’t include a single likable character. Every member of the Roy family was a total stinker. In any other era, that would have made the series unwatchable. Conventional TV wisdom holds that the audience always needs at least one character to root for and identify with, a Tyrion Lannister amidst all the Baratheons and Starks.

But we don’t live in any other era. We live in mean, bitter times. Today, with wealth disparity nearing Gilded Age levels, there’s seldom been a deeper gulf between the haves and have-nots, and never more reason to both envy and resent the rich. And that’s the secret sauce that made “Succession” so addictive; viewers could vicariously enjoy the spoils of exuberant excess — the helicopter taxis, the luxe corner suites and posh mountain resorts, the $600 cashmere baseball caps — while at the same time relishing the schadenfreude of watching these miserable one-percenters mess up their lives.  

Jeremy Strong in "Succession" (HBO)
Jeremy Strong in “Succession” (HBO)

With “Succession,” the audience could have its king crab tagliolini and eat it too.

Beyond hating on the super-rich, there was another reason “Succession” was so much fun to watch — and such a vivid snapshot of our current culture. In interviews, Armstrong always denied that the show was based on real people, specifically Rupert Murdoch and his brood. Who knows, maybe that’s even true. But the fact that its plotlines were so authentic, or at least authentic-adjacent, gave it all a roman a clef vibe that made it feel like an end of the week recap of reality.

All the craziness swirling around politics, media, and business in recent years — from the craven lies of the right-wing media to the rise of Elon Musk as the new dark lord of the internet — were repackaged in a slightly askew fictionalized form on “Succession.” It somehow made the real world a bit easier to process. It’s still happening even after the finale, with George Takei posting on Twitter just a few days ago that House speaker Kevin McCarthy is “an ambitious, empty, ass-kissing pain sponge who only got where he is because all the other choices are far worse.”

In other words, noted Takei, “Tom Wambsgans.”