The Emmy for Best Comedy Goes to ... "Succession"

The Emmy for Best Comedy Goes to ... "Succession"

“I love you … but you are not serious people.”
-Logan Roy, “Succession” Season 4, Episode 2

[Spoilers ahead ... but only slight.]

There’s going to be quite a battle for the Emmy for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series this September. Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, and Kieran Culkin are all submitting themselves for consideration in the lead category for their roles in “Succession.” Picking a winner from that trio alone would be a difficult task, let alone the inclusion of any other worthy actor in the finalists. Perhaps to increase their odds, the gentlemen from “Succession” should consider submitting in the comedy category as well.

The series is very funny, and one could argue it's a comedy. A dark one, certainly, but nonetheless, a hoot.

Can a show be both a drama and a comedy? Of course.

Such hybrids exist all over the place, and the IMDb page for “Succession” lists it as both. However, as the title character in Beetlejuice described The Exorcist as a movie that kept getting funnier every single time he saw it, so too does “Succession.” The show’s savage takedown of the business world is wittily wicked and often uproarious. The show strikes me as much more reminiscent of “Veep” than, say, “The Sopranos,” and that’s not surprising, given that “Veep” and “Succession” shared a number of key players behind the scenes. “Succession” series creator, Jesse Armstrong, worked on “Veep,” and both shows were executive produced by Frank Rich, Will Ferrell, and Adam McKay, amongst others.

During its four seasons, “Succession” played like a cross between “King Lear” and the Rupert Murdoch story. For 40 episodes, a cheeky riff on absolute power corrupting absolutely, starting with the lead character of patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox). Logan was one of the surliest S.O.B.’s ever to front a series, almost comically large in his villainous excess. Logan was both billionaire and megalomaniac, running his multimedia company Waystar RoyCo. like a general at war. And his tyrannical fingerprints were all over everything he touched: his newspapers, a movie studio, and most famously, his conservative cable news network. Any relationship between Logan’s American Television Network (ATN) and Fox News was strictly intentional.

But Logan also ruled over his roost at home with a similar iron fist. He was cold, snide, verbose, and ruthless. He was also a bully, adulterer, and sexist pig. Yet the entrepreneur did build his empire from nothing, earning a lot of Wall Street respect along the way. (Speaking of villainous characteristics, Cox was the first actor to essay Dr. Hannibal Lecter, doing so in the 1986 film Manhunter. Prep work for Logan’s ruthlessness, perhaps?)

Logan Roy’s family, lovers, colleagues, and underlings feared him and his brash ways, and when he died shockingly in only the third episode of the fourth season, it didn’t lessen his influence on their lives. If anything, he might even have loomed larger as his grown kids jockeyed for positioning to take over the company and attempt to live up to his example. Much of the show’s humor came in how spectacularly every one of his kids was unable to, and a great deal of the fun of the show was in watching them flail as they tried.

So, too, was the hay made out of Logan’s famous dismissal of them. He’d snarl, “Fuck off!” and in addition to the line becoming the show’s most famous quote, it launched a thousand memes. Making it all the richer was how delusional his kids were about their own worthiness. Their confidence in their questionable abilities bordered on hubris, like when Kendall (Jeremy Strong) exclaimed how good he was in the role of interim CEO after his father died, just two days on the job.

Logan regarded his children largely as embarrassments, not the serious people he was hoping they’d be, and such destructive parenting could’ve made for a profound examination of bullying and dysfunction. More often than not, however, this show encouraged us to laugh at their shortcomings, rather than pity them. Take Logan’s eldest son, Connor, from his first marriage. Connor was continually showcased as foolish, loopy, and unfocused, almost a ne’er-do-well, yet always a spoiled kid boasting of his wealth. He even had the temerity to run for president this last season, a subplot so ludicrous that it would’ve made a hilarious B story on “Veep” in its day. Add in the fact that Connor was played by Alan Ruck in a comically rich performance not that far off the hapless schmuck he played in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and you had a character we snickered at continually.

Also suffering from acute delusion was the aforementioned Kendall, who felt he should be the heir apparent to Logan’s business empire. Ken thought his name was underlined on his dad’s final wishlist, but it could’ve just as easily been crossed out. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. But then Kendall was constantly self-sabotaging, trying repeatedly to take down his dad. Kendall was rather like Icarus, flying too close to the sun and failing every time. At times, he could be self-aware and demonstrate a few inklings of maturity, but far too often he would default to his petulant side, throwing mini tantrums at the slightest provocation. When his wife chose not to attend Logan’s funeral due to fear of political protests in the streets, Kendall threatened to have her arrested to ensure her attendance. Hostile overreactions like that were very much the forte of George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” but I think he might even have shown more discriminating behavior than that.

Younger son Roman (Kieran Culkin) was quick with a quip, acting more knowing than anyone in the room, but ultimately, he was proven to be little more than a poseur. (His breaking down into ugly crying as he tried to eulogize his father in the penultimate episode was one for the record books.) Roman was smart, but his filter was hopelessly broken. He was dumb, too, sending a “dick pick” to a female colleague and blurting out dirty bon mots at the drop of a hat. He expressed a desire to masturbate to the image of his pregnant sister breastfeeding … on the way to his father’s funeral!

And as for that preggo sister Siobhan (Sarah Snook), or “Shiv," she came closest to being a sympathetic character, but she too had her major shortcomings, albeit often funny ones. Despite being a former liberal, Shiv was just as adept at equaling the vicious snark of her conservative colleagues, shivving men, so to speak, with the viciousness of a petulant inmate. And she often seemed to channel a bit of Julia Louis-Drefus’ bitter pol Selina Meyer while twisting that shiv in various male game.

The bitchy dialogue given the Roy children was LOL funny most of the time, and many of the supporting characters often came off like the pompous fools you’d find in a Preston Sturges or Blake Edwards film. Shiv’s husband Tom (Matthew McFadyen) was a flitty, self-absorbed nelly, constantly belittling his ATN underling, Greg, to coddle his own insecurities.

Poor Greg (Nicholas Braun) was little more than an empty suit, blankly meeting every challenge as only a deer in the headlights could. The cranky banter between these two often made them feel like a modern version of Lenny and Squiggy, albeit in Brooks Brothers suits. One of their most uproarious moments occurred in this season’s election episode where some errant wasabi stung the eyes of a coworker and Greg’s answer was to douse the wounds with lemon-flavored La Croix water. As the colleague screamed in agony, Greg tried to justify his actions by defending the beverage as having only a touch of lemon. Tom stood by, horrified.

These were not serious people.

The coy old guard of Logan loyalists, played by accomplished character actors David Rasche, J. Smith Cameron, Peter Friedman, and Fisher Stevens, played like a C-suite Greek chorus, yet they, too, were always looking out for number one in the most comical of ways. Everyone and their brother attempted to curry favor with president-elect Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk) after Logan’s funeral, even savvy businessman Lukas Mattson (Alexander Skarsgard), a billionaire tech whiz not above pandering in the most waggish way. The show constantly reminded us these people were in a dark comedy and that we should be laughing at them.

So, when all was said and done, was there any genuine seriousness in the show? Of course.

“Succession” was sobering in its scathing critique of global economics, horrendous business practices, siloed news, celebrity culture, and the bastardization of the American Dream. With such themes searing through the series, it demonstrated plenty of gravitas. Its ending demonstrated a certain sense of seriousness, too, in its judgment of the Roy children. They were all denied their dreams and left fairly miserable.

Perhaps the most prudent part of the show was its earnest critique of America and a citizenry that has grown far too entitled, similar to the Roy’s selfishness. In the past, the United States staved off fascism, secured civil rights for the electorate, and welcomed different types of people into our great, melting pot. Today, such victories are eroding while we turn into a nation of  ‘Karens’—naval-gazing, isolated, obsessing over petty grievances, and all too ready to shoot, loot, or discriminate with abandon. The world is burning, yet worries over drag queens reading to children seem to be consuming the public discourse.

To paraphrase Logan Roy, we are not serious people.

And that is no laughing matter.

*Feature illustration by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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