The 50 best TV shows of 2019: No 1 – Succession

In its second run, Jesse Armstrong’s masterful tale of a media tycoon’s squabbling brood beat all comers with its wit, twists and utter sadism. Anyone for a game of Boar on the Floor?

Spare a thought for HBO: 2019 was the year it threw millions upon millions of dollars at the final season of Game of Thrones, only to have another of its shows – with a fraction of the budget – blow Jon Snow and co out of the water entirely. That show was the dizzyingly seductive Succession, which became a runaway hit with its second series. A veritable powerhouse, Succession contained all the things that had once drawn us to Westeros: power, wealth, loyalty and sheer nastiness. However – and this is crucial – it was also shot through with such a clear sense of purpose that you could never imagine it going off the rails. The funny moments were far too hysterical. The dramatic moments were weightier than they had any right to be. Game of Thrones spent an entire episode letting a dragon destroy a city. Meanwhile, Succession gave us a single scene of an old man shouting at a car, and it was infinitely more devastating.

The first season – which focused on a powerful media tycoon’s health wobble, and his squabbling brood vying for the chance to take over his empire – marked Jesse Armstrong’s series out as a solid, impressive programme. But with its second run, it became something much bigger, a breathtakingly sleek meditation on cruelty, corruption and how not to dispose of your super-duper top-secret business documents. The characters boasted new depth, from the increased sadism of Brian Cox’s Logan (see the Boar on the Floor game he invents to humiliate his family) to Kendall’s never-ending reserves of cringe (as evidenced by the the berserk rap he writes for his father – sample line, “Yo, bitches be catty, but the king’s my daddy”).

The plot, too, piled up on itself with a relentless aggression. The self-serving spitefulness of the Roy family was repeatedly put into sharp relief by a number of foils and opponents who were somehow even worse. There was Cherry Jones’s Nan Pierce with her fragile morality, Holly Hunter’s Rhea Jarrell, blindsided by her own dumb ambition, and Eric Bogosian’s Gil Eavis, in equal parts bewitched and repulsed by the family’s naked power. The whole thing is a nest of vipers. The Roy family are as craven as any you will ever see on screen, but you’ll be damned if you don’t find yourself rooting for them, too.

A brash, satirical horror show ... Succession. Photograph: HBO

Because, indeed, the Roys are both the heroes and the antagonists of the show. Earlier this year, would-be US presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg failed to grasp this dynamic, telling the Hollywood Reporter that he hadn’t caught the Succession bug: “I need a character to root for and I haven’t decided if any of them are good people.” This grey area, though, is precisely what keeps Succession ticking over, and what has led to a glut of Roy-flavoured content online, from a Buzzfeed quiz that tells you what character you’re most like’ to a version of its theme tune lovingly recreated in a Nintendo game.

It is also a genuine joy to watch, full of intrigue and masterful twists. True confirmation of that came with the season two finale, which took place on an absurd screw-you yacht. There was unparalleled backstabbing, queasy power dynamics and unexpected chicken-eating. The final scene stomped on the accelerator right when it should have been easing off, before that ambiguous smile at the end, and the universe of possibilities contained within it. It was the sort of episode that had you holding your breath, until it made you involuntarily roar with laughter.

Unparalleled backstabbing on a screw-you yacht ... Succession.
Unparalleled backstabbing on a screw-you yacht ... Succession. Photograph: HBO/Graeme Hunter

Succession is a happy reminder that – in an age where studios are chucking money and A-listers at endless spinoffs and prequels – nothing will ever beat a show that has its fundamentals down like this. The script is gleaming. The production values are top notch. The acting – from Kieran Culkin’s snarling, vulnerable Roman to Sarah Snook’s increasingly mercenary Shiv – is among the best in town. As a happy bonus, Nicholas Britell’s theme tune sounds like the contents of heaven itself falling down a metal staircase.

Pete Buttigieg might not get it, but gladly he’s in the minority. Succession isn’t about whether or not the Roys are good people. In this brash, satirical horror show, those hazy lines between good and bad, winners and losers, sympathy and utter disgust are precisely what kept us gripped.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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