Why Succession is the most enthrallingly caustic TV drama in recent history - Anthony Clavane

Famously, in 1968, CBS anchor Walker Cronkite criticised President Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam war, crystallizing the American public’s opposition to the conflict and dealing a setback to the credibility of the US government.
Brian Cox, star of HBO's Succession. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire.Brian Cox, star of HBO's Succession. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire.
Brian Cox, star of HBO's Succession. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire.

“If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson is reported to have muttered, “I’ve lost Middle America.”

Earlier this week, on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly had a pop at Prime Minister Johnson, after footage was leaked showing Tory staffers joking about a lockdown Christmas Party alleged to have taken place last year.

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“If I’ve lost Ant and Dec,” I like to imagine Johnson muttering, “I’ve lost Middle England.”

Time will tell if the relentless teasing by the nation’s favourite game show hosts will deal a setback to the credibility of the UK government. The fact that it might reinforces the sense that we are currently living in a weird parallel universe created by the genius that is Jesse Armstrong.

Armstrong, who has written such comedy classics as Peep Show and The Thick of It, is the man behind Succession, the most enthrallingly caustic TV drama in recent history.

I have seen some great series over the past 12 months – with You, Maid and Squid Games being particular favourites – but Armstrong’s latest offering stands out as The Best Television Show Of The Year.

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It’s so good, and so memorable, that on seeing McPartlin and Donnelly’s myriad takedowns of the PM – “This (I’m A Celebrity) party didn’t include cheese and wine, or a secret Santa. Evening Prime Minister... for now!” – I found myself thinking: “This is just like watching Succession.”

That’s how surreal modern-day politics has become.

Who knows? Perhaps Armstrong penned the uncharacteristically amusing line trotted out by Labour leader Keir Starmer in Wednesday’s PMQs: “Ant and Dec are ahead of the Prime Minister on this.” I wouldn’t put it past him.

The Best Television Show Of The Year picked up 18 Emmy nominations for its second season and won the trophy for Best Drama. It debuted three years ago and we are now closing in on the latest season’s finale.

Third time around it remains just as mind-blowingly brilliant, a joy to watch, and I will miss my Monday morning fix on Sky Atlantic when we say au revoir to all those loathsome individuals who populate Armstrong’s weird parallel universe.

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It is an odd thing, I know, to love a show with absolutely no likeable characters. But I have fallen for its perceptive, razor-sharp writing, its satirical wit, its astonishing eye for detail, its amazing production values and its belting theme tune.

It is as if King Lear, Glengarry Glen Ross and Machiavelli had all been rolled into one and set in modern-day New York.

The acting is extraordinary, whether it be Brian Cox’s irascible and brutal Logan Roy or his four, squabbling, backstabbing children: Kieran Culkin’s snarlingly foul-mouthed Roman, Sarah Snook’s mercenary Shiv, Jeremy Strong’s arrogant but vulnerable Kendall and Alan Ruck’s poor (or should that be rich) deluded Conor.

It is of course, being an Armstrong creation, very funny. In the last episode alone there were two laugh-out-loud moments that will remain comedy classics for years to come.

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The first was when presidential hopeful Connor, after hearing that a reporter was digging into his girlfriend’s past (she is a former sex worker), proposed by getting down on one knee and asking her to make him “the happiest man slash the most bulletproof candidate in the world”. Adopting a fake grin for bystanders, she whispered into his ear that she would have to think about it.

And the second is not really recountable in a respectable, family newspaper. Suffice to say, it involved Roman accidentally sending explicit photos to his tyrannical father.

But it is, ultimately, a dark show about the corruption of power.

“Even in its most grandiose comedic moments,” wrote the journalist Allison Keene, “there is truth to Succession’s cynical world that makes us realise yes, these idiots are absolutely

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in charge of our world and no, there’s not really anything we can do about it”.

Which again brings to mind a much-loved telly duo’s enthrallingly caustic critique of another dysfunctional, incompetent, power-hungry elite.