[Critic David Shumway offers both a deadpan account of HBO’s blockbuster success and an elegant tribute to the classificatory genius of the late Hayden White, who saw flourishing genres where others saw disconnected events.]
The recently completed HBO series Succession has generated a lot of commentary, but I haven’t seen any that addresses in any detail the question of its genre. Most critics have called the show “comedy” or “satire,” but have not done much to explain why these terms apply. I will argue that these terms are in different ways accurate, but for surprising reasons and only after exploring why the series doesn’t fit other genres.
Genre matters because these forms entail longstanding political and social assumptions. But complex narratives like Succession almost never obey the rules of one genre. Because they entail multiple plot lines, they typically incorporate the conventions of several genres. I have found it useful to think about complex fictional narratives as being emplotted in the sense that Hayden White talked about the great 19th century histories being emplotted in the form of one or another literary genre. We usually think of fiction as simply having a plot, but my view is that complex fictional narratives make use of familiar plot forms in combination. Typically, however, one of these plot forms is dominant, and it is the dominant form that is most strongly correlated with the work’s political implications.
The problem of Succession’s genre is exacerbated by something New York Times critic Alexis Soloski has identified: that it is “almost entirely plotless.” Individual episodes in particular often are something like an act of Waiting for Godot, and the series clearly demonstrates that in such complex TV narratives, the episode is no longer the significant unit it has previously been. And while I agree that Succession has less in the way of plot than many other complex narratives, one of the reasons that it seems plotless is that the show incorporates traditional plot forms in ways that make them hard to recognize.
These characteristics help explain why I thought at first that Succession was a melodrama. Melodrama is a genre defined not by any specific plot form, but by excess and moral judgment. Excess is something Succession has excessively, and the travails of the show’s characters are emotionally excessive, the sort of excess most typical of TV melodrama. Thus, the show has been compared to Dallas, a prime-time soap opera about a rich family also enmeshed in a struggle over an estate and corporate succession. Judging by posts on social media and in the news, think many viewers take the show to be a melodrama rooted in family dynamics and trauma, and they like the strong emotions the characters evoke. But melodrama requires some characters who are definitively good and some who are definitively evil, and, while Succession may have had the latter, by the end of season one, it was clear it did not have the former. The show, therefore, could not represent a moral battle. While there are plenty of JR’s, there is no Bobby Ewing.
The end of season one presented the possibility that what we were watching might turn out to be a tragedy, with Kendall as the potential tragic hero. He is by birth a man of “high stature,” and he certainly has his flaws. The car crash that kills the young waiter at the end of the season might have been the crux of a tragic plot. But this event is covered up, and it becomes mainly just another of Kendall’s psychological issues. The fact that the man is dead because of his carelessness is ultimately of little concern to anyone else, the show’s attitude being as callous as that of the Roys. As the series develops, it becomes clear that whatever Kendall’s fate may be, there is nothing riding on it. His ultimate failure to gain the top job at Waystar/Royco has no consequences for the world, the nation, or even the company; it is merely a personal defeat.
Of course, the idea of the tragic hero entails the heroic. The hero’s fatal flaw must be understood in the context of good qualities and achievements. Kendall is largely lacking in both of these. For that reason, it is also even harder to see how Succession could be a romance, a genre that requires a hero who is convincingly superior to the audience and who will triumph and transcend his world. But the show gives us one character who briefly seems like she might be such a hero. Early on, Shiv’s association with the political enemies of ATN make her the one alternative voice among the major characters. That she is the only woman and that she seems serious in ways that neither Kendall nor Roman is are, positioned her to be a transformative figure. That possibility receded during the middle seasons, when she becomes as enmeshed in machinations involving the family business as her brothers, but it reasserted itself in season four when she seemed to be the only member of the family trying to stand in the way of an avowed fascist being illegitimately elected President of the United States. Yet she and the show lose interest in this mission, so that she can’t even be considered heroic in failure.
It is all too predictable that the woman would be the only character whose love life plays a significant role in the series. We learn early on that she is having an affair with a colleague related to her political consulting business (someone who shares her liberal leanings and is her intellectual equal), and, given that her husband, Tom, is utterly unsympathetic, we might feel she is justified in looking elsewhere. The affair goes nowhere, but her unfaithfulness will continue to be a theme. I think Shiv and Tom’s marriage is in fact central to Succession’s larger narrative. But how? Given how seemingly bad it is, we might be tempted to call it farcical. One of the traditional premises of farce is that marriage kills romance, and of this Tom and Shiv’s marriage could be exhibit A. Moreover, there is a farcical quality to the behavior of most of the show’s characters, who never seem to achieve what they set out to accomplish. These are the Keystone Cops of the billionaire set. Yet, the farce, like melodrama, is defined as much by tone as anything else, and Succession’s tone is not light enough to qualify. Moreover, the lack of physical comedy and high jinks would make it hard to classify as a farce.
It took me until the third season season to get the idea that we were supposed to laugh at these people. It is curious that we are meant to laugh at them because normally we do not laugh at those with whom we empathize or in whom we emotionally invest. Chaplin’s Little Tramp makes us laugh, but with him as he triumphs over bullies and his social betters. We laugh at Succession’s characters, who often seem like caricatures because they all exhibit a kind of inscrutability, some of which is a function of their inconsistency. Instead of traditional plotting, many episodes rely on these inconsistencies to create the element of surprise. Some of these are plausible in context, while others, such as Kendall’s eloquence at his father’s funeral, are not. Succession’s characters produce Brecht’s alienation effect at the same time as they invite our emotional engagement and empathy. That disjunction seems to be mocking the audience, whose emotional investments repeatedly go unrewarded.
The genre most often mentioned in connection with Succession is satire, one way to make sense of these bizarre creatures. The show is clearly mocking the manners and morals of the billionaire class through characters who inevitably do the wrong thing, but satire is not merely mockery. The genre of satire requires, as Northrop Frye puts it, “an object of attack.” Satire is aimed at a state of affairs that it seeks to change. Such change need not be radical—indeed, satire is, as White observes, associated with political liberalism—but it must be consequential. The point of satirizing Donald Trump, for example, is to show how he is unfit to lead the nation, and neither merely to make as laugh at his foibles, nor to question the validity of the Presidency itself. With this in mind, it’s not clear what might result from Succession’s mockery. Is it trying to get billionaires to behave better? There is nothing in the show that implies that it is seeking the end of that class, the system that produced it—even the particular version of that system that has been dominant since Reagan—or its stranglehold on the media.
Let us concede, however, that Succession has satirical aspects, its ironic and cynical attitude, which is in part directed at, as White puts it, the “visions of the world dramatically represented in the genres of romance, comedy, and tragedy alike.” And yet, we still must consider the genre of comedy. When critics call Succession a comedy, I think they usually mean that the characters and their foibles are supposed to make us laugh. But the genre of comedy is not defined mainly by laughs, but by its faith in the possibility of renewal. The basic form of the genre is what most people call “romantic comedy,” in which two young people find themselves attracted to each other and desire to marry, but whose desires are forestalled by obstacles, usually parental. The plot is devoted to the overcoming of these obstacles and the successful wedding of the pair. Traditionally, the marriage ceremony that ends a comedy is a public celebration because what is at stake is not mainly the couple’s happiness, but the successful reproduction of the society. Comedy, then, is the most conservative of genres because it endorses the perpetuation of the status quo.
If you have been paying attention, you should have figured out where this is going. While there is no young couple in Succession, there are Shiv and Tom, whose marriage as we begin season four is seemingly bound to end. One of chief forms of romantic comedy in the cinema is what Stanley Cavell calls the comedy of remarriage, which replaces the adolescents of traditional comedy with previously married adults, and where the obstacles are less external parental interference than internal to the relationship itself. The end of the series turns on Shiv’s last-minute decision not to support her brother Kendall’s bid to retain family ownership of the company, to support its takeover by Matson, who has designated Tom as the new CEO. Shiv says that her reason is that Kendall would not be good at the job, a judgment that we must concede is reasonable. But why should we believe that Shiv is suddenly concerned with the fate of Waystar/Royco as an enterprise? She had agreed to support Kendall after she learned that Matson had betrayed her by offering the top job he promised her to Tom. Earlier in the episode, Tom does not respond to her overture to reconsider their relationship. And yet, in the end, she votes to sell the company and make Tom the boss.
We might write this behavior off as simply more alienating inconsistency except for what is the series’ penultimate scene. There we see Tom get into the SUV in which in which Shiv is seated and offer her his hand. She places hers on his, but she also sighs and looks out of the window. We then see the vehicle from the rear as it departs, a sequence echoing the end of The Graduate. Succession, as it turns out, is a comedy of remarriage. The classification is supported by the fact that she is pregnant with Tom’s child, meaning that their marriage will be literally reproductive. We have to imagine that Shiv decided that being the wife of the boss was better than being his sister. This is not a romantic decision. Shiv may have acted out of mere sisterly spite, but it can also be read as a self-interested, one, and it which would be is consistent in the sense that Shiv has been the sibling least at the mercy of her emotions.
Obviously, the new alliance between Tom and Shiv is not something explicitly celebrated, as the brief scene in the gloomy vehicle makes clear. While it is true that modern comedies usually dispense with the traditional public celebration, there is nothing celebratory about Tom and Shiv’s icy reunion. The point is not that Succession is a romantic comedy, but that it is a comedy. It endorses the renewal and continuation of the patriarchal social order as the series has depicted it. It does this despite having a fascist poised to become President, an event of so little consequence to the series that it is barely mentioned in the final episode. It is thus an example of what White calls a satirical comedy, one which presupposes “the ultimate inadequacy of consciousness to live in the world happily or comprehend it fully.” The world will go on as it is in part because we are not capable of understanding it well enough to transform it. All we can do, Succession tells us, is learn to live with the Murdochs, the Redstones, and the Trumps.