Maybe it’s because of its Emmy categorization in drama, but recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about “Succession” as though it’s not intentionally funny; as though the idea that it could be looked at as a comedy — albeit, a dementedly dark comedy — is preposterous. It tends to end up being compared to very clear-cut comedies, especially its cable network-mate, the terrific “The Righteous Gemstones,” in a way that describes those series as “the funny version of ‘Succession'”… as though “Succession” itself isn’t inherently the funny version of “Succession.”
“Succession” has always been a dark comedy masquerading as a prestige drama. HBO’s hourlong critical darling honestly has more in common with “Fleabag” or “Flowers” than it does “Ozark.” But that’s also because it’s specifically a dark British comedy conveniently masquerading as an American prestige drama.
Succession is just Arrested Development minus jokes.
fight me on it. (Or plz make me memes!)
— LONG LIVE THE DREW FLESH (@videodrew) September 22, 2019
FYI, “The Righteous Gemstones” = hilarious “Succession.”
— Caissie St.Onge (@Caissie) September 24, 2019
And it goes deeper than just the fact that the series comes from prolific British comedy writer Jesse Armstong. Well, it begins there, but it definitely goes deeper. The question is how an hourlong series that tackles topics like abuse, corporate espionage, drug addiction, and even murder — an hourlong series about truly deplorable rich idiots who genuinely use the terms “libtard” in conversation and arguably have no soul, assuming that this takes place in a world where souls do in fact exist — can be considered comedic in its own well-established soul.
The answer is that “Succession” is simply Armstrong’s workaround at creating an American remake of his own original comedy, “Bad Sugar,” which told the story of “sexy and scheming heirs of a wealthy mining mogul as they battle each other to become the next head of his fracking empire.”
Created by Armstong and his regular writing partner Sam Bain, “Bad Sugar’s” one and only episode aired in 2012. It was subsequently ordered to series in the UK, but due to the cast and crew’s ever-growing schedules — the series starred Peter Serafinowicz, Sharon Horgan, Olivia Colman, Julia Davis, and Reece Shearsmith, who have all been pretty busy since — it was never able to come together.
In 2016, it was announced that Fox was developing an American remake. The remake was to be written by Patricia Breen, who had also written the unaired pilot for the attempted American remake of Sharon Horgan’s “Dead Boss.” This remake also never came to fruition, but if it had, it wouldn’t have captured the same magic as the original series, even if it were good.
So what’s smarter than to bypass the “remake” stage altogether and Americanize your original vision as a new series? “Succession” simply infuses less parody into its formula than “Bad Sugar,” but the satire is still there, right down to the unfortunate souls who have ended up attached to the wealthy Roy siblings. Instead of a fracking empire, it’s a media empire. It’s all bigger — and with more of a budget behind it — which helps it feel especially epic.
Yes, “Succession” was nominated in the drama category at the Emmys, and yes, “Succession” is an hourlong series, and yes, there are a number of prestige dramas (like “Mad Men”) adept at comedy without shedding their more respected structures. But the fact that it feels epic seems to be the issue when it comes to classifying “Succession’s” genre. Because “epic” can’t possibly equate to “comedic,” can it? (Recently, there’s also been a lot of talk about the series in the context of the works of Shakespeare, also ignoring the inherent comedy in even Shakespeare’s most dramatic tragedies.) That belief feels like the major reason people are quick to consider “Succession” a straight-up drama, as it’s seemingly too poignant and pointed to be considered a comedy. (Unless it was a half-hour, that is.)
When people discuss “Succession” as a drama first and foremost, for some reason, the comedy of it all is treated as incidental, as a small part of the series. But even if you consider “Succession” a drama first and comedy second, it’s worth acknowledging that its very existence is still very much rooted in comedy. Brutally dark comedy, but comedy nonetheless.
“Succession” airs its Season 2 finale on Sunday, October 13 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.