“Succession” Review: The Best Show on TV Returns
The past 1-2 years have been a depressing time.
But my greatest disappointment wasn’t the constant doom-and-gloom news reports, the lockdowns, the isolation, the hysteria from weirdos on Twitter, or the travel restrictions.
I can tolerate all of those as long as I have great TV shows to watch.
Unfortunately, there haven’t been many in the past few years – despite the glut of content on streaming services.
But there is one exception in the form of Succession, an HBO series that has become my new favorite show ever since Breaking Bad ended and Game of Thrones imploded.
Season 3 started a few days ago, and the premiere episode was the happiest I’ve been in a long time to stay up until 4 AM (I’m based in Europe).
I’m reviewing it here because it’s also the best finance-related show around – but you might not know it from the description and other reviews:
Succession Review: Tell Me About Yourself
I’ve previously described Succession as “Game of Thrones meets corporate America,” and that’s a good 2-second tagline.
The series follows the Roy family, owners of global media conglomerate “Waystar Royco.”
When the Founder/CEO and family patriarch, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), runs into health problems, his four children battle to control the company.
The primary surface-level conflict is between Logan’s most pedigreed and business-oriented child – Kendall Roy, played by Jeremy Strong – who wants to win control of the company and take it in a new, more innovative direction.
But the deeper conflict is Kendall’s need to overcome his inferiority complex and get his cutthroat father to love him after a lifetime of emotional neglect.
So, just like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, it’s a family drama about a guy with a serious midlife crisis.
It’s just that this midlife crisis is about a drug addict rather than a drug dealer, and it’s about controlling a global media conglomerate rather than the mafia in New Jersey.
Succession is equal parts comedy and drama, and the writers masterfully mix the two even within the same scenes and lines of dialogue.
We’ve long known that a protagonist does not need to be “sympathetic” for a show to work.
But Succession takes it a step further by proving that a show can have multiple unlikeable protagonists… but still use humor to become engaging.
OK, So Why Is This Show So Good?
I have a reputation for consuming massive quantities of TV series, movies, books, and games, so people often ask me what makes something “good.”
The criteria differ from medium to medium, but the characters are critical for a complex, serialized TV series.
A feature film without interesting or complex characters can work if the concept is novel and executed well; ask Christopher Nolan about that one.
But in a series, writing is king.
A great show follows sharply defined characters with clear strengths and weaknesses who struggle to overcome their flaws in surprising but logical ways, and it uses these character struggles to drive the plot.
Many stories fail because the characters are boring or unsympathetic.
Others fail because the characters have no real weaknesses and are miraculously good at everything (think: Rey in the Star Wars sequel trilogy).
The writers of Succession avoid these flaws and inject enough “quirks” into each character to make them interesting to follow – without making anyone overpowered or underpowered.
As a specific example, Kendall Roy, described above, is the “protagonist” of the show.
He’s initially favored to become CEO because he has executive experience in the company, he’s interested in new growth initiatives, and he has solid credentials.
But he also has some big weaknesses: he’s a recovering drug addict, his wife and kids left him due to the drugs, and he’s easily manipulated by other people.
And he doesn’t quite have the “killer instinct” required to run a huge public company.
He also happens to be into motorcycles, hip-hop, and rap, and sometimes he even gives rap performances at family gatherings (you have to watch this clip – spoilers/language/NSFW, yes, but watch it anyway).
I don’t want to delve into the story or mention spoilers here, but he also gets a fantastic failure-and-redemption arc throughout Seasons 1 and 2.
The story isn’t set up around an arbitrary plot twist or “reveal;” instead, when Kendall tries Move A, his father Logan responds with Maneuver B.
Then one of his siblings hears about it and responds with Move C, to which Kendall responds with Ninja Move D.
You’re engaged not because you like the characters but because you can’t wait to see which awful-but-hilarious thing will happen next.
Succession Review: How Is It Relevant to Finance?
- In the first episode of Season 1, Kendall is attempting to close an acquisition of an online content company similar to BuzzFeed. He thinks this tuck-in acquisition will transform Waystar Royco, but his father and siblings disagree.
- Later in Season 1 and Season 2, one of Kendall’s old classmates from Harvard, who’s now in private equity, enters the picture and contemplates a minority-stake investment in the company… but his true motivations may be nefarious.
- At one point, there’s a shareholder revolt over a big “issue” that comes up, and a key investor makes certain demands of the Board (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers).
- And at various points in both seasons (and Season 3 so far), financiers play a major role in determining whether the company can accomplish goals such as going private or refinancing loans.
None of the major characters are bankers, but a few supporting characters are in IB and PE.
Of course, this is still a TV show, so not everything that happens is plausible or realistic.
But the show captures the feel of that world quite well.
You might think that finance is a matter of numbers and data and decision trees, and while that may be true for quant funds, it is not the case for deal-makers.
Executing and closing an M&A deal is far more about ego, office politics, and brinksmanship than it is about a complex Excel model.
Comparable Show Analysis: Succession vs. Billions vs. Industry vs. Black Monday vs….
There have been other finance-related shows recently, such as Billions, Industry, and Black Monday, but I’ll be honest: Succession operates on a completely different level than all of them.
This is not exactly a fair comparison because these other shows all follow characters in the finance industry, while Succession is more of a “finance-adjacent show.”
But that’s also what makes it work; the characters have much wider emotional ranges when they’re allowed to have lives outside of work.
I know you’re desperate for a comparable show analysis, so here we go:
- Billions: The writing doesn’t compare. Billions is like “money porn” – a guilty pleasure with contrived plots, obscure cultural references, and over-the-top dialogue. It’s a fun ride, but there isn’t much to revisit or think about afterward.
- Industry: This other HBO show portrays the finance industry more accurately since it follows junior bankers and S&T staff, but it lacks the humor and interesting characters of Succession.
- Black Monday: Similar to Billions, this one goes in the “money porn” category. It’s a fun comedy, but it lacks the subtext and character development of Succession.
None of these shows is “bad.”
I enjoyed them to varying degrees, but I wouldn’t necessarily re-watch them.
On the other hand, I’ve already watched the first two seasons of Succession 3x, and it’s my top TV recommendation to anyone who asks.
Weaknesses and Failure Stories
No show is perfect; even The Wire has its flaws (e.g., Season 5).
Here are some issues I’ve noticed with Succession:
- Slow Start – The pilot episode is good, but it didn’t blow me away or make me instantly engaged. The series took a few episodes to find its footing, as is often the case for character-driven shows without a “high concept.”
- Tone – Sometimes, the show comes across as a bit too dark and dreary, especially in the early episodes. The writers mix comedy and drama more successfully as the show progresses.
- Plot Plausibility – Several plot points relating to M&A and private equity takeovers are “a stretch,” to say the least, but I’m sure that 99% of the audience never noticed or cared.
Succession Review: Final Thoughts
On an average day, most of my time is spent either consuming or creating content.
But I’ll be honest: I get distracted quite easily.
Even when a show or movie is “good,” I often drift off and check my phone, look at Reddit, or browse the news.
When Season 3 of Succession premiered a few days ago, I never lost my focus for the entire episode.
Sixty minutes passed, and I said, “Wait, that’s it? I want more! Now!”
In a post-Game of Thrones world, Succession is the closest thing to “appointment viewing” that we have.
So, if you haven’t already started watching, get to it – and learn to love some rich, unlikeable, but hilarious people.
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