Life is comedy for the rich and tragedy for the poor, according to the old adage. But some storytellers would rather not choose between the two. See, for instance, everyone’s favorite (or favourite, if you will) HBO hit, Succession. Though the show’s a two-time winner of the best drama series Emmy, it isn’t just about backstabbing, maneuvering and usurping. It’s the show’s focus on the inanity of billionaire life that makes it tick—and makes clear that at its heart, Succession is really more of a farce.
Need proof? Season four of Succession kicked off last week with a premiere that was more joke-filled than a Saturday Night Live segment. While the Roy kids engaged once again in a witty tête-à-tête as they orchestrated yet another takedown of the father that really should disown them at this point, Tom Wambsgan loosed a takedown of Greg’s date that would have made even Joan Rivers clutch her pearls, and has certainly left us gleefully reveling in his savagery.
If Succession were truly an American drama—the sort of post-Sopranos show we used to call “prestige TV”—its writers may have felt obliged to craft a plot line involving Greg’s date using her ludicrously capacious bag to smuggle confidential Waystar Royco information and jeopardize the PGM deal. Instead, creator Jesse Armstrong (a Brit) and his cadre of British and American writers allowed her and her accessory to exist purely as vehicles for jokes – an enormous faux-pas that Tom eviscerates with a flourish. Greg may indeed never go to the opera again, and Burberry totes may never recover from Tom’s scathing stinger.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s familiar with Armstrong’s previous work. A native of Shropshire, England, he’s also a graduate of the University of Manchester, where he met his writing partner, Sam Bain. Together, Armstrong and Bain rose through the ranks of children’s comedy and sketch comedy such as Smack the Pony before creating Peep Show, a darkly comedic sitcom about Mark and Jez—two unlikely best friends living together in South Croydon—in 2003.
Right off the bat, Peep Show stood out for its use of point-of-view shots and inner monologues that would not just heighten awkward moments, but immerse viewers right into them. Whether we watched Mark trying to hide from the youths terrorizing him outside his flat or saw Jez’s sexcapades in the stark light of day, Armstrong and Bain didn’t shy away from making viewers sit in their discomfort, cringing even as they laughed.
British comedy often revels in discomforting moments that feel all too real. And while a flat in South Croydon might seem many worlds away from the helicopters and penthouses of New York, Armstrong’s penchant for heightening cringe is woven through each episode of Succession as well. Watching Roman accidentally sext his father a photo of his genitals instead of Gerri is right up there with Peep Show’s Mark bumping into Sophie after their catastrophic wedding, sporting ejaculate on his trousers from a quick tryst with a new colleague. Kendall’s “L to the OG” rap at Logan’s birthday induces the same can’t-watch-but-can’t-not-watch squirms of Jez sucking jam from Sophie’s mum’s fingers. And watching Logan piss all over his office harkens back to Mark pissing all over his colleague’s desk. While Succession’s characters are not comparable to those in Armstrong’s other shows, watching Succession sends the familiar physical cringe of Peep Show shuddering up my spine.
British comedy has rarely been given the opportunity to stand on its own with US audiences. Rather than being imported wholesale, British formats and sensibilities more often get a friendlier American makeover (a la the two versions of The Office), or are woven into American stories, such as Armando Iannucci’s Veep. Over 14 episodes of the original British Office, David Brent falls further into his tragedy, an emblem for the foibles of man. His stateside equivalent, Michael Scott, gets 150+ episodes to transform from loathed to loved, ending his arc living the American Dream—and most importantly, as an American sitcom hero.
It’s rarer still to find a British comedy that becomes the lens for an American family saga. Every episode of Succession has delivered laugh-out-loud moments, whether through acerbic one-liners or goofy Greg or even Logan’s savage outbursts. They’re all effortlessly woven with the show’s intense stakes, life-or-death moments and emotional reckonings. And then there’s Tom’s odyssey: an outsider with a soft-spoken, upper class Midwestern accent has enjoyed a Dickensian ascension to become a Machiavellian manipulator. He’s also perhaps the show’s funniest single character. Throw in Adam McKay directing the pilot, and it becomes even more clear that comedy was always the key to this shrewd, biting dissection of the media landscape.
As Armstrong well knows, real life doesn’t have a laugh track or an epic score. The drama of the Roys can only truly be explored by sitting in the discomfort and absurdity of their wealth, entitlement, and ambition. Whether we’re watching Peep Show’s El Dude brothers or Succession’s The Disgusting Brothers, in Armstrong’s world, comedy will always be king.