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‘Succession’: A robotic series for a robotic audience

The hit show is a great choice for a class on narrative and dramatic techniques, but excruciating for a Friday night

(l-r) Sarah Snook, Jeremy Strong and Kieran Culkin in a scene from 'Succession.'

This is not an article, rather a confession, and I hope to be absolved of my sins. I am a writer, I am passionate about TV and I devour series, even those that are addictive, indulging in binge-watching. I have been reporting on them for years in this newspaper, on the radio and wherever they let me, even on TV, the few times when TV permits scrutiny of itself. My friends include writers like me, journalists with the same pathology as me, film buffs of all kinds, screenwriters and even filmmakers, all of whom are unanimous in their passion. Everyone shares their delight: “Have you seen the latest episode of Succession?” they ask, five minutes after HBO Max has uploaded it. “‘Oh my God, Logan’s death.” “The best sequence in the history of the series, without a doubt.” They discuss and recommend, praising the brilliance of the scripts, the quality of the performances and the avant-garde audacity that has upset the conventions of drama.

In response to their enthusiasm, I offer a polite smile and a sheepish silence. They are right, of course; I can’t fault their analysis. I’ve seen it too (I watched the first two seasons in one go, the third in dribs and drabs, and some of the fourth, just like the well-behaved child who finishes his meal not to upset his hosts) and I can’t deny that their points are fair. But they have become so enraptured with the series that any disagreement may sound taboo. If you say Succession leaves you cold, you don’t care about the fate of the Roy, you’re not particularly impressed by the production design or the debates about the costumes of the rich, and you’re even annoyed by the self-consciousness of the writing and acting, as if screenwriters and actors were simply celebrating their own brilliance and competing to see who is the greatest, this makes you a social outcast. I know I will be thrown out of the tribe, but I have faith in the goodness of my friends. I don’t hold it against them how much of a nuisance they have become regarding the Roy family.

The fact that I don’t like Succession probably implies that I don’t like television series. I discovered some time ago that I don’t like literature, a phrase I sometimes blurt out in literary gatherings, and it is taken for a wisecrack, but it is true: I am rarely interested in the books that appeal to literary enthusiasts. I am rather bored by controversies about styles, genres and approaches, and discussions between literary critics may sound as extraneous to me as those held between theologians. I’m as interested in literature as I am in TV series: its capacity to amplify life and its deep connection with it. For instance, I love Kafka, but I deplore pretty much everything that has been written about Kafka.

That’s why a series as Brechtian as Succession, which creates that distancing sought by the great playwrights of the 20th century, which portrays the characters as characters and not as people, exposing the plot structure practically in plain sight, strikes me as wonderful for a class on narrative and dramatic techniques, but excruciating for a Friday night. It is not strange that this series is popular with those in and around the trade, but those of us who came here because of life and aspire to stay for it despair at its pomposity. A similar thing happened to Aaron Sorkin and his show The West Wing, but life always prevails with Sorkin’s work. Behind the very dense jungle of his prose, there is a glimpse of humanism that excites. In contrast, Succession is a nice prelude to artificial intelligence. When screenwriters are computers, they will be writing things like this, and the most robotic viewers will applaud with delight.

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