No Holds Barred: Succession takes its bow

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Justine Lupe, Alan Ruck, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong, and Sarah Snook in “Succession. Macall Polay/HBO

I am in the midst of sitting Shiva (not for the character of Shiv) for my four-year addiction to Succession. Apparently 88 million viewers might be as well. But surprisingly that was nowhere near the tally for Game of Thrones or The Sopranos.

There have been huge American TV blockbuster series before. Dynasty, Dallas, Breaking Bad … But Succession was different because it hits us right in our zeitgeist. And the timing was perfect. Dynasty gave us excess which we all wanted, The Sopranos gave us mobs and murders which we all knew, and Succession gave us what we needed — dark and damaged shadows. As Kendall Roy says, “People who say they love you also fuck you.”

This was not just a show about the super-rich. Many didn’t like it because they hate the rich. The money was beside the point. This was a backstage pass to the trillionaires who are now running the world. We got to see how a media conglomerate decides an election — sure it was Murdoch’s story but it was a whole lot more. “It is all bullshit in the end” admits lead character Roman Roy.

And boy is it ever!! We got behind the wizard’s curtain. These were characters we loved to hate and yet I felt for them. Or did I? And why did I? Everything was transactional, no one had a real relationship, and everyone seemed severely damaged goods. Maybe that’s it! Aren’t we all? And so, it’s loneliness and worse at the top. And though the Roys seemed immoral, I learned how amoral Lukas Matsson, the Swedish tech genius, really was.

But I got to see a lot of “that” world in Succession. Inside all the latest private jets (available at a moment’s notice). I got to ride in the back seat of all those yacht sized SUVs. And speaking of yachts, I got to be on Logan’s jumbo yacht in Croatia (Croatia? Who knew it had beaches!). Not to mention the houses in the Hamptons, Bahamas, and Norway mountain tree top retreats. Who knew from Norway? But the Roy family took me. And I learned a lot.

I got to see what an ADD eccentric tech streaming giant like Lukas Matsson is like up close with flip flops and a dirty t-shirt. Now I get a better sense of Elon Musk!

The family started jockeying for position and the screws started to tighten. I found myself holding my breath — for who or what exactly? After all, no one would end up broke and destitute. Clearly it was a struggle for their souls; and that was far more devastating. It wasn’t the tally for billions, but it was all about the personal wreckage that kept me glued. Everyone was on the brink — even the wealthy get hit bad.

What he said.

The writing was extraordinary. And let’s not forget the many ingenious ways the word “fuck” was used. A lot of viewers balked at the crude language. But now the expressions are on T-shirts and mugs. “Fuck off” has become the shows logo and lead actor Brian Cox is constantly asked by fans to say “Fuck off” into their cell phones. There are “buckle up fuckhead” hats and “incredible fuck brother tour” bandanas. Succession has major swag.

The scripts have been the feature. I wondered if every character had their own head writer and team. I am ready for a book on the famous one-liners. Maybe you had to watch the show to get the hit. But I think a book of such gems could become a best seller;

“Sugar plum failures.”

“Clicks for shits.”

“I don’t love you, but I love you.”

“I can battle shitheads, but I don’t know how to battle clowns.”

“My philosophy is privacy, pussy, and pasta.”

“If it is to be said — so it be and so it is.”

“My dad was just about money, winning, and gossip.”

“I love you, but you are not serious people.”

“See Shiv cry, See Kendall lie, see Roman light up the sky.”

“Cunt is as cunt does.”

“The mausoleum looks like it was designed by Liberace and Stalin.”

“He has our dick in his hand, but shouldn’t we have his dick in our hand?”

And these lines were only in the last two episodes. I lived for the writing in this show. It had a rhythm and a certain cadence. A lot of the actors didn’t finish the sentences — it was a nuanced technique to get you to pay attention. There were a lot of “uh-huh” responses (which meant “fuck you”). You held on to every well written word.

But after the writing came the terrific acting — a strong ensemble. None of them were familiar except for Brian Cox and they each developed such strong performances. And the directing was unique as they used a lot of handheld close-ups. Cameras seem to be everywhere.

The actors had to stay in character at all times and react without overreacting. No wonder Jeremy Strong felt he had to stay in character 24/7. The long takes of slow burn rage, subtle shock, and controlled tears were exceptional. There was very little smiling except at the very end when we got to see Kendall’s actual teeth for the first time in a laugh. It lasted 10 seconds. Within minutes he looked suicidal.

I wonder if the Succession actors will get typecasted the way The Sopranos actors did. It is one of the curses of starring in a hit show. James Gandolfini did go on to make films, but he was always Tony Soprano. “Big Pussy” (Vincent Pastore) ended up doing store openings and parties as “Big Pussy.” Only Brian Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano) seemed to transition successfully on to Broadway and TV. Even beloved Soprano’s writer David Chase didn’t have another win. In fact, he ended up doing a lukewarm Sopranos prequel movie called The Many Saints of Newark.

The Many Saints of Newark turned out to be a hollowed-out Sopranos prequel.

You can’t go home again. Thank God both Jesse Armstrong (Succession creator and producer) and Mark Mylod (lead director) are British and know to stop Succession after the 4th season. By the way, I got used to “spoiler alerts” with Succession. It’s the sign of a great show if you already know what’s going to happen and you are still engaged.

The finale put everyone in their place. It was tidy. It was right. There were no group hugs (well, maybe one) or “hanging chads.” Bad finales can make you hate the entire series. I saw people turn on Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, and Seinfeld for their lousy last episode. I think the silent shot in the back seat of a cavernous SUV of a dead faced Tom and Shiv looking straight ahead holding each other’s limp hands — said it all.

And let’s not forget the clothes. The show first made me aware of “stealth wealth.” No lux labels. And it was all about the men. The shoes and the shirts were all Loro Piano and Montclair puffer vests. The only female fashion statement that came out of the show was a put down of a girl wearing a large $2500 Burberry bag (tote) to a Logan party. Tom called it “a ludicrously capacious bag. What’s even in there? Flat shoes for the subway? Her lunch pail? It’s monstrous. It’s gargantuan.” A big bag is a sign of excess. The Roy’s don’t need a bag (they have people for that). They don’t carry anything.

That “ludicrously capacious” tartan Burberry tote bag.

Yes, Succession could be about the Murdochs, the Trumps, or Summer Redstone. But actually, it was about the Roys. They had their own story. And even though the show reflects our polarizing times in media, family, and politics — it never actually mentioned the pandemic (no masks anywhere and it was filmed in surge times) and racism or wokeness was never front and center. You saw election night manipulated but you never really heard Democrat or Republican.

The other show star was the music by composer Nicholas Britell. It was fabulous!  The music truly enhanced the story. After the first season I kept hearing the theme song on people’s phone ringtones. This last season Brittell created a real symphony — each episode had its own haunting melody. He actually created classical “movements” for each character. I already bought the soundtrack on iTunes.

New York Times reviewer Alexis Solosky summed up the show saying, “pain and comedy went hand in clammy hand.” That’s not easy to do. And yes, it became King Lear in the end. Shakespeare rules any good plot. Everyone turns on each other and money doesn’t buy anything but a pricey wardrobe, a 24/7 jet, and a beige and glass Hudson Yards penthouse with a view of New Jersey. And “is that all there is” is the constant refrain.

The Roy siblings locked in embrace.

Get ready… in Succession’s time slot comes The Idol (already badly reviewed), a story of a fragile porn star having graphic sadistic sex and breakdowns. How HBO Max ‘s “mighty” have already fallen. We have hope with White Lotus, and I guess Larry David. But will we ever see the likes of Succession?

Immediately I was left bereft after the Succession finale.  Everyone is still in process a week after the show closed out.  It dawned on me this was the finest show I have ever seen on TV, Broadway, or in the movies. Streaming won big here since I haven’t been to a movie theater or Broadway in four years. Granted it’s a tough act to follow for the cast, crew, and especially viewers. But I refused to “pre-grieve” (Roman’s word). After all, as Ecclesiastes stated:

“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.”

Succession more than delivered on the season and the reason.

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