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HBO’s ‘Succession’ Is the Best Show on TV

The window into the world of the mega-rich is more fantastical than "Game of Thrones," and the realest thing in 2019.

HBO Succession Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong

Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong in “Succession”

Zach Dilgard/HBO

It had a good run, but as of October 13, the 2019 TV year is over.

Maybe it’s not technically over, but it might as well be, given that HBO’s palace intrigue drama-cum-comedy “Succession” not only dropped the mic with its Season 2 finale “This Is Not For Tears” on Sunday, but it also exited the building, caught a red-eye to the coast, and is three margaritas into its vacation, thank you very much.

As we bid the series a fond farewell for the foreseeable future, with a third season of the show ordered but not yet in production, it feels like the perfect time to evaluate how, exactly, “Succession” came to be the best show on television (according to me). There has been much handwringing over what HBO would replace “Game of Thrones” with; as it turns out, they’ve had the perfect show all along.

While the first season of “Succession” of the pitch black comedy was a slow-burn of an introduction to the Logan Roy family, Season 2 reached new heights built atop the rock solid storytelling foundation so carefully laid in each episode by creator Jesse Armstrong and company.

The cast, anchored by a towering performance from Brian Cox as family patriarch, is a murderer’s row of talent you wish you’d taken notice of sooner, including Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, and Matthew MacFadyen, among others, and also took a step-up in the second season, adding Cherry Jones and Holly Hunter to its recurring ranks.

But none of that is why “Succession” has tapped into the zeitgeist in a way that couldn’t have been predicted when it arrived on the scene.

When it debuted in June 2018, it was unclear how the series could possibly entertain an audience  already beleaguered by the antics of the alleged billionaire serving as president of the United States. In general, it just didn’t seem to be the time nor the place to be mucking about reveling in the silly affairs of the super-rich and super-white. Also, the ever-increasing wealth gap that will soon swallow us all whole felt ripe to cause some hard feelings.

With that in mind, how could viewers be expected to invest in characters who – if Season 2 taught us anything – would describe their death as having “no real person involved”?

HBO Succession Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin

Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin in “Succession”

Graeme Hunter/HBO

And yet, “Succession” found a way to optimize its unfortunate timeliness. Which is to say that it completely ignored it.

There have long been shows that boast about being “ripped from the headlines,” and lately, more often shows like HBO’s “The Newsroom” that attempt to capture the zeitgeist by literally being about the zeitgeist – and end up regurgitating the world as we know it, with the smug, self-satisfaction of hindsight being 20/20.

To watch “Succession” and become involved in the petty but painful travails of the Roy family is to be granted freedom from caring about the Murdochs or the Redstones or the Trumps or any other family line in the super-rich pseudo-oligarchy. It’s license to live second-hand in the shameless excesses of the lifestyles of the rich and famous without the sticky complicity of putting money in their pockets.

It is a version of 2019 that we recognize, where the wealthy are the ruling class and the rest of us are just hanging on for dear life.

The brilliance of “Succession,” then, is how easily it lures you into its tangled web. On the surface, the Machiavellian machinations of the mega-rich are as fantastical to viewers as an ice zombie riding an ice dragon zombie, but thanks to the show’s commitment to grounding that world in realistic human relationships, “Succession” feels recognizable, even as it remains far from relatable.

HBO Succession Jeremy Strong

Jeremy Strong in “Succession”

Graeme Hunter/HBO

That knife’s edge between recognizable and relatable is where the series thrives, particularly in Season 2. We see the Roy brood struggle with the ways that Logan has disappointed them throughout their lives and we feel our own pangs of parental disappointment. And then Connor asks for a $100 million loan. We see Shiv clumsily grasping at anything that might save her faltering marriage and we feel that abject fear of everything falling apart. And then we’re reminded that she asked for an open marriage on her wedding night. We see Roman reach out to his siblings, looking to strengthen their bond and we feel the breathtaking terror of vulnerability. And then he’s roundly mocked. Oh, and last week was held hostage? Recognizable, but not relatable.

Severed from the real life caricatures that spawned them, the Roys are almost human, if far from humane. They are both more and less spoiled and shallow than you could possibly be. They exist in a double of our world, where our problems are not shared – because they never would be – but they are familiar.

“Succession” is good, nay, the only good show on television because it is, at its core, reality TV. It’s just not a reality the rest of us will ever experience. If that’s not 2019 in a nutshell, what is?

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