Succession: News


Succession: News

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Jesse Armstrong on the roots of Succession: ‘Would it have landed the same way without the mad bum-rush of Trump’s presidency?’ - 27th May 2023

It has been the TV drama of our time – a brutal, hilarious unpicking of how power works. As the series comes to an end, its creator looks back at its origin and the unholy trinity of men who helped inspire Logan Roy

My first vivid memory of the project that would develop into Succession was trying to get out of it. It was about 2008 and I was on location for the filming of Peep Show, the UK sitcom my longtime writing partner Sam Bain and I wrote together. Between that show and my work on The Thick of It and In the Loop, and a bunch of other things, I was feeling overcommitted. That particular day we were pretending a very normal field in Hertfordshire was a safari park. I sloped off from set and, hiding from imaginary lions, tried to elegantly step away from the project.

I failed. And in the following months as I wrote, slowly, I became certain the script was a dud. It was stodgy and odd. The original idea, a faux-documentary laying out Rupert Murdoch’s business secrets, with them delivered straight to camera, evolved as I worked into a sort of TV play, set at the media owner’s 80th birthday party. Channel 4 were supportive, but it was an odd form, this docudrama/TV-play, and difficult to make happen. Around 2011, after a read-through in London where John Hurt played Rupert, the project essentially died.

My US agent was the first person I recall suggesting a totally different approach. A fictional family, a multi-series US show. For five years or so, I dismissed the idea, certain that a portrayal of a fictional family would never have the power of a real one. Four works changed my mind: HBO’s excellent Robert Durst documentary, The Jinx; Sumner Redstone’s grimly business-focused autobiography, A Passion to Win; James B Stewart’s propulsive DisneyWar; and Tom Bower’s fascinating Robert Maxwell biography Maxwell: The Final Verdict. These turned the idea of doing a media-family drama without a singular real-life model from a terrible betrayal of reality into a tantalising chance to harvest all the best stories. Here was an opportunity to explore all the most fascinating family dynamics within a propitiously balanced fictional hybrid media conglomerate. I took a long, deep dive into rich-family and media-business research.

I talked about this, as-yet-unwritten, idea in half-ironised terms as ‘Festen-meets-Dallas’

When Sam and I decided to bring things to a close on Peep Show, I flew out to pitch this media show around LA. I had a clear idea of where I wanted to develop it, but my agent persuaded me appetites would be whetted if we had a number of potential homes. So I spent three days doing a round of pitch meetings where I talked about this as-yet-unwritten idea in half-ironised terms as “Festen-meets-Dallas”. No stars, Dogme 95 camerawork. Scared of driving on the five-lane highways, I bumped around town in the back of a Honda Civic while a nice young man from my US agent’s mailroom ferried me between rooms stocked with identical tiny bottles of water and executives of vastly varying degrees of interest.

Eventually, I got to HBO, the place I most wanted the show to land, home to The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. I knew they might be receptive. Frank Rich – once known as the “Butcher of Broadway” for his theatre criticism, but now an in-house consigliere – had championed my work there to the boss, Richard Plepler, and I’d previously developed a show with them. So, out the back of a French-style bistro on a three-cappuccino high, I pitched it to their head of drama and comedy, Casey Bloys.

Sometimes a pitch stretches thin and threadbare, the fabric renting as you go, the other party peeping grimly through the holes. Other times, the air thickens, and you can feel the atmosphere in the room turn oxygen-rich as the enthusiasm you are trying to project transforms into an enthusiasm you are actually feeling.

By the time I left LA, HBO had made an offer and Adam McKay, fresh from The Big Short, had said he would be interested in directing. I’d written another Succession forerunner, a script about the US political strategist Lee Atwater, for Adam and his producing partner Kevin Messick. It had been one of the few LA experiences I’d had where the excitement expressed at the start of the project sustained through the writing and attempts to get it made.

This was 2016 and, once back in the UK, I wrote the pilot through the spring and summer in a one-room flat I rented on Brixton Hill, south London, walking across Brockwell Park each morning, listening to podcasts and reading news about the Brexit referendum. Scotland had recently voted by a narrow majority to stay inside the UK and the abiding sense right before the Brexit vote was, yeah, change looms, it glistens, menacingly, promisingly, but it doesn’t happen. Not really. Really, everything stays the same.

But then it did happen. And across the Atlantic, the Trump campaign was igniting – even if initially his candidacy felt like a slightly amusing, slightly too-vivid flash in the pan. Into early autumn, in fact, all serious people were still explaining to one another that Trump couldn’t happen. Although I suppose, looking back, there was a notable lack of detail in terms of the mechanism by which he would be stopped.

I think a lot of the better films and TV shows I’ve been involved with have at their heart a quite simple impulse around which the more subtle layers are spun. In the Loop’s spark was anger at the Iraq war. Chris Morris’s Four Lions I think was driven by his gut feeling that something was very wrong with the way we understood jihadi terrorism in the UK. Peep Show was about oddball male friendship, perhaps even “masculinity”.

I guess the simple things at the heart of Succession ended up being Brexit and Trump. The way the UK press had primed the EU debate for decades. The way the US media’s conservative outriders prepared the way for Trump, hovered at the brink of support and then dived in. The British press of Rothermere, Maxwell, Murdoch and the Barclay brothers, and the US news environment of Fox and Breitbart.

The Sun doesn’t run the UK, nor does Fox entirely set the media agenda in the US, but it was hard not to feel, at the time the show was coming together, the particular impact of one man, of one family, on the lives of so many. Rightwing populism was on the march across the globe. But in the fine margins of the Brexit vote and Trump’s eventual electoral college victory, one couldn’t help but think about the influence of the years of anti-EU stories and comment in the UK press, the years of Fox dancing with its audience, sometimes leading, sometimes following, as the wine got stronger, the music madder. It was politically alarming and creatively appealing: to imagine the mixture of business imperatives and political instinct that exist within a media operation; to consider what happens when something as important as the flow of information in a democracy hits the reductive brutality of the profit calculation inside such a company. How those elements might rebound emotionally and psychologically inside a family as it considered the question of corporate succession.

For Logan Roy, Murdoch, Redstone and Maxwell were my holy trinity of models. But Conrad Black, Brian L Roberts of Comcast, Robert Mercer of Breitbart, Julian Sinclair Smith of Sinclair, Tiny Rowland, Rothermere, Beaverbrook and Hearst all fed in. The three central models were wildly different, of course: the self-made refugee Maxwell and the already-rich Murdoch, a scion of Australian journalistic royalty, both so different from the tough Boston lawyer Redstone who started with a couple of his father’s drive-in cinemas.

But they were connected by a strong interest in a few things: a refusal to think about mortality (Redstone and Murdoch both used to make the same joke about their succession plan: not dying); desire for control; manic deal-making energy; love of gossip and power-connection; a certain ruthlessness about hirings and firings. And most of all, an instinct for forward motion, with a notable lack of introspection.

Perhaps the best part of Redstone’s autobiography for a casual reader is the opening, where he recounts clinging by one hand to a hotel balcony through a fire. Despite suffering third-degree burns over half his body, years of rehabilitation, excruciatingly painful skin grafts, he says this event, after which he made all his biggest business plays, had no impact whatsoever on the trajectory of his life.

Whether due to all this grist, or the aligning of the political planets (in)auspiciously, the pilot came unnervingly easily. Getting names in a script to feel real can be hard for me – they’re a tell-tale sign of whether I’m living inside it. Kendall, Shiv, Roman, Connor. They all felt right straight off the bat. Their inspirations, I suppose, were the children of these magnates: three of the Maxwell kids, the ones closest to the business (the boys, Ian and Kevin) and to their father (Ghislaine). Brent and Shari Redstone, with whom Sumner played a tough and complicated game of bait-and-switch over CBS-Paramount succession. And the Murdoch children, Prudence, Lachlan, James, Elisabeth, Chloe and Grace.

But getting those names for the Roy children made them feel like their own individuals to me. It allowed me to pour in just what I wanted from the real world, fill each with all the faults they might have inherited, while giving me room to add some extra, just for them.

Greg and Tom came fast, too. Tom from two roots. One was thinking about the sort of lunks I’ve occasionally seen powerful women choose as partners. Plausible, manly men with big watches and a soothing affable manner. That mixed with the deadly courtier, a more 18th-century figure, minutely attuned to shifts in power and influence, an invisible deadly gas that occurs in certain confined places and rises to kill anyone unwise enough not to take precautions. A hanger-on sustained by some Fitzgeraldian illusions about the world, a sense that perhaps the rich really are different from us and a romantic ambition to make it in New York City.

Greg, I guess, was a distant relative of the sort of political adviser I had myself briefly been. Gormless, clueless, out of place and gauche. But not without an eye for a deal. And, I hope, a little more wheedling and insinuating than I ever was.

The scenes flowed. I put all research aside and followed my nose and wrote pretty much exactly what I wanted

The charge between these two semi-outsiders struck me from the start as toxic and comic. Tom, the interloper, is like an organism that has found a precarious but rewarding perch above some deep oceanic vent and adapted itself to conditions perfectly. He is not pleased at all to see a similar creature scuttling along hoping to share the same cramped evolutionary niche. That first half-bullying, half-provocative exchange they share in the outfield at a softball game in the pilot landed them right in the middle of a stew they’ve been cooking in ever since.

The scenes flowed. I had eaten a very large amount of research, but once I was writing I put it all aside and followed my nose and wrote pretty much exactly what I wanted. It felt funny but odd and broken-ended, fragmentary, abrupt, oblique and slightly brutal. When I emailed it off, I had the familiar feeling that Adam, Frank and HBO might email back to say not only was it not good, it wasn’t even actually, technically, a script. But their response was frighteningly positive. Almost as though the script was finished, after what was, I thought, a quick first draft. I think every other episode of Succession has gone to at least 30 drafts – usually 50. The pilot barely hit 15.

We had our read-through in New York on US election day 2016. Before we started, I made the sort of joke lots of people made that day, assuming the polls were right and Hillary Clinton was going to squeeze it. That night we gathered in Adam McKay’s apartment to watch the results roll in. Much later, I walked a long walk back from Soho to where I was staying near the United Nations looking at the electoral college numbers projected on to the Empire State Building.

We started filming the next day.

I still wonder whether Succession would have landed in the same way without the mad bum-rush of news and sensation Trump’s chaotic presidency provided. Trump wasn’t the firebombing of German civilians, and nor is Succession Slaughterhouse-Five, but I do sometimes think about Vonnegut saying no one in the world profited from the firebombing of Dresden, except himself.

This is an edited extract from Succession: The Complete Scripts – Seasons One, Two and Three (Faber & Faber), out now at £20 each. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copies for £17.60 each from guardianbookshop.com.

The final episode of Succession airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic/Now on Monday. Jesse Armstrong donated the fee for this article to the Writers Guild of America strike assistance fund.

 

 

Brian Cox admits he has not watched Succession final episode

 

Brian Cox has praised the writers of Succession but confessed he had not watched the final episode of the popular US drama.

After five years, the dark and satirical programme came to an end with an 88-minute finale which aired last week to critical acclaim.

Scottish actor Cox, who played foul-mouthed global media tycoon and family patriarch Logan Roy, was killed off in episode three of the final season of the hit HBO show.

Appearing on Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg, 77-year-old Cox said none his on-screen children deserved to become the new boss of the family business, but confessed: “I haven’t seen the end of the show.”

When asked why, Cox joked: “I’m dead, dead people don’t watch things like that.”

 

 

He continued: “I’ve never liked watching myself for a start, and somehow or another because of what happened to Logan I’ve been disinclined to watch the rest.

“I knew how it was going to end because I knew that Logan had already set it up and so I gather that ultimately in the end Logan’s won even though he’s in the grave, but it’s a strange situation.

“I don’t cling onto things, when I’m over, it’s over and I go on, and I find that with this show which has been a great show.

“It has been one of the great shows of all time, especially for me, so I can’t complain.”

Succession first aired in 2018 and is the brainchild of British showrunner Jesse Armstrong, who also created and wrote TV comedy-dramas Peep Show and Fresh Meat.

Cox praised the writing team on Succession amid a strike by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) which has seen more than 11,500 members walk out since May 2, primarily over royalties from streaming media.

The actor said: “They’re the prime forces of what we do, we can’t do anything without the writers.

“I’ve been particularly lucky to work with a genius like Jesse Armstrong.

“They should get their just rewards for it. Unfortunately producers are the ones that behave rather badly, all the time.

“They’re the ones that are the manipulators and sometimes the writers get pushed to the tap-end of the bath.

“I think it’s time the writers, I mean they have done before in the past, but it’s time that they really asserted their rights because they are the main focus, that’s what you like when you see a show like Succession or The White Lotus – it’s the writers.”

Later on the BBC show, The White Lotus star Tom Hollander also spoke about the strike, saying he thinks writers should “go for it”.

He said: “Writers are the most important people, they are the primary creators and without them there’s nothing.

“They need to fight for their corner, and if AI is about to replace everyone script writing… then they need to hold their ground.

“What is fascinating about it to me is the way the unions have real power in America which we consider to be land of the free market, and the Thatcherite aspiration was partly the American aspiration, but actually the irony is in America the unions have real block power which we no longer have here.”

 

 

News

Succession’s unprecedented twist will transform how we think about TV - 10th April 2023


 

In an audacious turn that will shake the Richter scale of pop culture and go down in television history as a stunning plot twist, Logan Roy, the fictional media magnate at the centre of Succession, was killed off without warning in Monday’s episode.

The best show on television, the scathing black comedy about privilege that had revealed itself as a wrenching drama about familial trauma, exited the character that everyone else orbited around. It is an unbelievable gambit, a profound decision for a series that rightly draws obsessive coverage.

Few saw it coming – on screen or off. This is the fourth and final season of Succession, which in its very title set up the question of who would succeed Brian Cox’s tyrannical corporate titan. The obvious expectation was that the 10th and final episode of this season, scheduled for the end of May, would be where we would see something as definitive as this. Monday’s episode was just the third, with the pieces seemingly being put in place. The table was supposedly being set, now it’s been completely upended.

The possibilities were both enticing and dramatic. Would the forever dubious alliance of his children – Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Siobhan, a.k.a. “Shiv” (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin), actually find a way to defeat the patriarch who divided and conquered them for decades? Would one of his courtiers stab him in the back? Would one of Logan’s plans, based on his gut instinct, finally blow up in his face? Turns out we were looking at it wrongly.

The episode, titled Connor’s Wedding, was written by Succession’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, and if nothing else it proves that Logan Roy was not indestructible. The creator of “boar on the floor”, the dispatcher of US presidents, and the possessor of the most ferocious banter on Wall Street, got on a corporate jet to go to Sweden, strong-armed by his own blood and major shareholders to extract a slightly better price from the Swedish tech mogul buying the entertainment assets of the Roy family’s company, Waystar RoyCo.

The billionaire was ageing, and in the show’s very first episode he’d suffered a stroke that left him hospitalised, but his recovery – fuelled by a punishing unwillingness to cede power or take a backwards step – had been purposeful and near complete. In the previous episode Logan had delivered a fighting speech to the staff of ATN, the Fox News-like cable news network that he was keeping hold of, but early in the flight he reportedly collapsed and his heart stopped beating.

Armstrong’s decisions throughout the episode were crucial. Viewers learnt what had happened as Logan’s children did. Assembled for the wedding of the oldest Roy son, Connor (Alan Ruck), they received a terrified phone call from the flight. You never saw Logan’s fall, you never saw his face again, even as Shiv’s soon to be ex-husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) held his phone to Logan’s ears so his offspring could speak to him as CPR was administered.

The first response was disbelief. Another near-death experience for Logan? Season three had also featured a cliffhanger that suggested a distraught Kendall drowned in a swimming pool. That time Succession stepped back from the brink. Not this time. It was a minute-by-minute experience, defined by panic and shock. The words spoken had a tragic honesty: “You’re going to be OK,” Roman pleaded, “because you’re a monster.”

“You think there’s anything after all this?” a maudlin Logan had wondered in the season’s first episode, and the answer was clearly no. His body was an out-of-focus form in the background. Logan Roy was no more. No final words, no deathbed derision. Death is a mainstay of scripted television, the break-the-glass storytelling option, but no major show has ever so coolly and completely removed an essential character. It feels unprecedented.

The focus for the show’s remaining episodes is now the children. It makes sense. Logan Roy had shown us who he was time and time again. He believed “money wins” and couldn’t change. The character was a constant – a terrifying, compelling constant – and he provided the gravity which held everyone else in painful place. Without him, and Cox’s towering performance, the program’s boundaries are for better or worse broken.

“I love you, but you are not serious people,” were Logan’s final words to his children-slash-adversaries, incongruously delivered in a private karaoke room after a failed attempt at rapprochement in the previous episode.

We’ll find out if he was right over the next seven episodes. And whatever eventuates from this staggering development, it’s clear that Succession’s conclusion is not about who wins. That’s always been a facile reading. Succession is about who survives. And Logan Roy didn’t.

(The Sydney Morning Herald)