I rarely get rooked into the anticipation and buildup for a new season of premium TV. These days, publicity tours and media blitzes for such priorities are downright overwhelming. Between TV, podcasts and websites, along with a few strategically placed print stories, the degree of desperate hype to get people to be aware that something is back is understandable, given the fractionalized world of declining audiences and profits most media companies find themselves in of late. But to folks like myself who are a bit more invested in this kind of stuff, it’s often overkill.
Except in the case of one of my favorite shows. SUCCESSION, the artfully comic and tragic melodrama that chronicles the business and personal lives of a media mogul and his ambitious yet often clueless adult heirs, is returning to HBO this weekend for a fourth and final season. It, and its brilliant cast, have received dozens of awards, its audience has increased for each of the three previous seasons (from 582,000 viewers for its premiere to nearly 1.7 million multiplatform viewers for its Season 3 finale a little more than a year ago) and its pop culure impact is indisputable. And, for me, having spent more than a decade in the world of the Murdoch family, from whom the fictional Roys are clearly drawn from, it’s downright personal. I recognize the roots of these characters–Brian Cox’s Logan Roy is clearly Rupert, Jeremy Strong’s Kendall is obviously Lachlan, Sarah Snook’s Siobhan is not only as nuanced as Elisabeth, she could have been separated at birth from her (compliments to both, I might add–both are as stunning as they are brilliant). And while Kieran Culkin’s Roman is much more adolescent than the James Murdoch I knew, he has forever emerged as not only the most watchable sibling of this group, he has forever usurped his brother Macaulay as the most watchable sibling of the Culkin family.
And as a host of critics who have received the first four of the final 10 episodes this week are practically screaming from the rafters in unison, I’m likely to be as invested in this final season as any previous one. Witness the reaction of THE DECIDER’s Meghan O’Keefe:
Succession fans should take heart: the first four episodes of Succession‘s final season are absolutely magnificent. Armstrong and his writers’ room finally let the metaphoric dominos they’ve been setting up for three seasons fall. The dialogue is as brutally sharp as ever and the ensemble cast pulls out some of their best, most devastating work yet. But what makes Succession Season 4 such a masterwork is the way the HBO show stays true to its core cynicism while honestly exploring the heartache and insecurities driving its ruthless power players. Succession Season 4 isn’t just good. It’s poised to handily sweep the 2023 Emmys.
If you Google SUCCESSION Season 4 this morning, you’ll see plenty of reviews that are similarly upbeat. As Alan Sepinwall of ROLLING STONE explains, on the heels of a cliffhanger than reached that best-ever audience level last year, creator Jesse Armstrong is actually taking the show to new levels of deceipt, comedy and, yes, pathos:
Armstrong and company find a way to make this final season feel the same, but also very, very different. The notion of ending hangs over everything from the start. The season begins two days before the planned sale of Waystar Royco to Swedish tech mogul Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). Shiv, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), and Roman (Kieran Culkin), having been banished by Logan after their failed coup, already have plans in the works for a new business that they’ll fund from their shares of the sale. Logan leaves his latest birthday party early, the occasion making him painfully aware of how little time he has left to rule this planet.
Logan knows the end is coming, and so does Succession. Without spoiling what happens in the episodes sent to critics, the way that events unfold, and the impact that they have on Logan and everyone else, never plays like a rehash of what’s come before. Significant choices are made, by both the characters and the creative team, that cannot be taken back. It is full steam ahead to the end. Much of what happens is shocking and/or shockingly poignant, especially since it is a show about the absolute worst human beings alive.
And that’s the delicious truth–the Roys are far, far more exaggerated characters than the real Murdochs. Rupert is far more preoccupied with his personal and political life than is Logan, particularly in light of his intention to marry for the fifth time, at age 92, to a woman a mere 26 years younger than him. And, trust me, he’s nowhere near as funny, though, to be fair, he doesn’t have access to Armstrong or his writers.
Which makes the job ahead for its programming champion Casey Bloys, and for HBO itself, all the more daunting. As Jill Goldsmith of DEADLINE reported, at the premiere party this week, Bloys told a packed house he is acutely aware of that impending reality:
The first premiere of Succession was in 2018 at the NYC complex formerly known as the Time Warner Center. “A lot has happened in those five years. We’ve had a couple of corporate mergers, a global pandemic, a few Emmys,” said Casey Bloys, chairman-CEO of HBO and HBO Max Content at the premiere of the series fourth and final season.
HBO parent Warner Media was sold to AT&T in a deal that closed that year. The telecom giant then sold it to Discovery in 2022. At the Season 3 premiere in October of 2021 the deal to create Warner Bros. Discovery had been announced but not yet closed. “It’s been a wild ride. But we are so proud to be the home of Succession.”
But when SUCCESSION ends its run this spring, HBO itself will be in the midst of a transformation, only one spoke in the platform reportedly ready to be rebranded as MAX. The formula that made HBO what it was in its first half-century–a select number of elite, buzzy, critically acclaimed series plus a deep library of movies–is being supersized to include the universe that David Zaslav built at Discovery and its networks with far cheaper and more elastic unscripted series– thousands of hours of repeatable, bingable and CHEAPER content, devoid of the level of residuals the kind of talent that makes SUCCESSION receive. And from a quick glance at what Bloys was able to get going before Zaslav’s draconian reign began in earnest, there isn’t too much that, at least now, seems as promising as SUCCESSION.
Of the new series that Ben Travers of IndieWire touted last winter as SUCCESSION Season 3 was being announced, THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE and WE OWN THE CITY have already been gutted. IRMA VEP, designed as a mini-series, will also not return. Of the series announced at that time as returning, WESTWORLD was unceremoniously aborted, BARRY is ending, and the film noir reboot of PERRY MASON whose second season began earlier this month has barely registered with viewers or critics. THE IDOL, the latest brainchild of EUPHORIA creator Sam Levinson, will debut at Cannes later this month, but its launch plans remain ambiguous, and EUPHORIA’s newest season appears to be more than a year away, and isn’t exactly being eagerly anticipated by too many folks over the age of 30. Both HOUSE OF THE DRAGON and THE LAST OF US broke through to far larger audiences than SUCCESSION ever did, but their costs, especially in light of the intense pressure Wall Street is putting Zaslav under once his MAX gambit is finally unleashed, make them both long-term question marks.
And for a company that has yet to officially cancel a ratings and creative disaster such as MILF MANOR, run by a chairman who when he took full stewardship–and became Bloys’ boss–touted the franchisability of 90 DAY FIANCE in the same breath as that of GAME OF THRONES, it begs the question of how many more serious bites at the apple Bloys will be given going forward.
The harsh truth is that for as amazing a work of art as SUCCESSION is, it is a closed-loop, continuing storyline, costly scripted drama with little true potential for the “-verse” world that seems to be the obsession of every vertically integrated media company’s CEO these days. Backend revenue potential is thus nominal. And with a scant 39 episodes as its final tally, it is hardly an impactful enough asset for MAX to draw future subscribers into their precious walled garden for any appreciable term.
I can assure you that neither Logan Roy nor Rupert Murdoch would look upon such KPIs with a lot of enthusiasm. And, frankly, they both have more passion for their parochial interests than Yosemite Zas does.
The feeling here is that the reviewers, and indeed Bloys himself, have the same sense of impending doom that Logan Roy exhibits early on in this swan song season. We really don’t know what MAX will look like, or what will populate it. And there’s a compelling case to be made that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for something as wonderful as SUCCESSION to find its way onto this platform and into the zeitgeist of people like me.
So, yep, I’m gonna watch SUCCESSION, and I urge you to as well. If you haven’t yet seen any part of the first three seasons, a lion-like start to spring in most of the country is a great opportunity to catch up. The likes of something this compelling to crop up again may not be seen, at least on this network, for sometime to come. What, if anything, can succeed SUCCESSION will be a storyline worth watching, to be sure, but likely to be less entertaining.
Until next time…