This first question more writers ask than you may think:
Frances Everly (@everly_frances) August 14, 2020
I suppose, yes, I am inadvertently now “working” when I read even for entertainment. I end up paying attention to how a book is written. So reading leads me to keep what I consider good reading in sight.
TV and films get much the same treatment. I cannot help also but compare what I write with what I see viewers eating up on screen. Searching for another drama series after we finished with the excellent Peaky Blinders, we stumbled on Sky’s download of HBO’s Succession, but having heard nothing about it I did a quick Wikipedia, where I learned:
Succession follows the Roy family, owners of media conglomerate Waystar Royco. The family patriarch, Logan Roy (Cox), has experienced a decline in health. His four children – removed oldest son Connor (Ruck), power-hungry Kendall (Strong), irreverent Roman (Culkin), and politically savvy Siobhan (Snook) – all with varying degrees of connection to the company, begin to prepare for a future without their father, and each begins vying for prominence within the company.
Wiki also noted it is an award-winning” series. So we thought: Okay, why not? Then I also saw…
…Will Ferrell is listed as one of its producers. Recently he produced and starred in a film that “sends up” the Eurovision song contest. Apparently he did not realize that the problem with a film like that is you cannot effectively create a cinematic joke about something real that most everyone already considers a joke.
Another producer is Frank Rich, who was also one of the producers of Veep. I had approached that program hoping it might be a U.S. version of Yes, Minister. Immediately I could see it was definitely not going to be anything like that, and I recall giving up on it after only a few episodes.
So I should probably have better anticipated what was coming here. Within moments I could not but think that Succession is based on the Murdoch clan crossed with the Trumps. Having this family of spoiled slugs shoved at me, I found myself hoping their “empire” collapsed. (It was only sympathy for the thousands of ordinary employees who would lose their jobs that caused me to back off that a bit as I prayed for its demise.) I sat there wishing the “heirs” ended up broke. I hoped hoped hoped the thug patriarch dropped dead.
Supposedly a “dark comedy,” there is nothing funny about Succession. The four episodes I endured, I laughed not once. Most of the men appear to have the life outlooks of “frat-boys,” and the daughter makes Ivanka Trump look like Eleanor Roosevelt.
It is also purportedly a “satire.” And I think “Hollywood” has forgotten what satire is. Dictionary.com defines “satire” as:
The use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.
So it is NOT about us watching the powerful walking all over the less powerful, but is about using the traits and the conceits of those powerful and turning them back on THEM through humor. Asserting in Succession’s defense – the only defense of it I can think of – that the series makes these uber-rich slugs “look really really bad” fails to account for the fact that approach does not work when dealing with the powerful who are also depicted as having no consciences to speak of and are interested only in themselves and in winning. It is not “satirizing” SS death camp guards by having them laughing at people they are directing into gas chambers.
For example, calling “Roman” (as Wikipedia above does) “irreverent” is to miss the side of the descriptive barn by ten miles. “Odious” would be a far more accurate single word for him, and that is actually a gross understatement. He is, indeed, just plain gross. In one scene, alone in his skyscraper office he “pleasures himself” against a window. (I suppose because it is HBO, that is required. Gotta do stuff there to justify the subscription cost that you can’t do on commercial network TV.) As the supposed target for satire, he should have paid some embarrassed price for that crude behavior; but he pays none. And him offering a kid a million dollars if the boy hits a home run at a picnic softball game with the boy’s working class parents looking on in sudden hopeful expectation, then tagging the kid out at home plate after the boy had hit the ball into the outfield and circled the bases, and ripping up the life-altering check dangled in front of the boy while smirking at him and declaring “Tough luck, kid,” or some such, is just cruel and not “satirical” in the slightest. Again, what PRICE did he pay for that abuse? Again, none.
We have had it seems to me a lot of this lately in cable drama. There is a danger in attempting to craft characters who are too edgy, too troubled, and, frankly, so far up themselves they stick their own heads up their own rears to the point their heads come out of their mouths. That is this program in a nutshell. Every family member is insufferable. (The characters use the word “f-ck” and other vulgarities incessantly. Apparently that is what passes nowadays for “award-winning” dialogue. Again, gotta say “f-ck,” it’s HBO.) Fictional characters certainly do not have to be likable, but if there is NOTHING intriguing, contradictory (a male serial killer of male CEOs, who also saves the life of a little girl, for instance), or even a modicum of SOMEthing that is redeeming about them – main characters in particular – what is the point?
Even Hitler liked dogs, for pete’s sake.
Let’s remind ourselves because THIS NEEDS STATING. Dr. Strangelove is SATIRE. Spitting Image is SATIRE. Monty Python skits and films are often SATIRICAL. Yes, Minister is a SATIRE. (Along with its Yes, Prime Minister sequel, my favorite political comedy by far. It should be REQUIRED viewing for any television political satire writer.) More recently 30 Rock is SATIRE. And those are often at times hilariously funny, too.
I saw some in the IMDB reviews of the program promising Succession “gets better.” I am willing for a show to spend an episode or maybe two finding its feet, yes; but in this era of few episodes, when the second is WORSE than the first I have to assume a drama has shown what it is by the FOURTH episode out of just TEN episodes in total. If it started out THAT badly for FOUR dismal, life-wasting hours, if that BIG a transformational improvement is to follow in episodes 5-10, if it is THAT uneven a production, how the heck does it possibly merit “awards?”
So yet another “award-winning” U.S. cable TV drama series that I just don’t get. (The Affair and Big Little Lies were two others. The second bugged me as woefully copy-cat of the first. If you have been here a while, you may recall I thought The Affair was so bad that back in 2015 I vented about it here and here and here and here.) As a writer, that I don’t “get it” does, again, bother me. Am I just not “getting” something else that “great entertainment minds” understand?
Eventually I found myself reflecting on how if I want to watch a vulgar, greedy, dysfunctional, ugly family of arrogant offensive billionaires, I don’t need bad cable TV fiction. I need only closely to follow the disgraceful daily mouthiness and entitlement mentality antics engaged in by our current President and his adult offspring, especially his two sons. In 2019 one of those trophy shot a rare sheep (not even an animal that would eat him if the
genius dude missed) in Mongolia (the brave “Great White hunter”: “1880” would like its attitude back), and Junior clearly saw no problem doing it on our U.S. taxpayers‘ dime.
On that note, Happy Friday! 🙂