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'Succession' is overrated

Midway through Season 2 of Succession, I got bored. It was the 11th or 13th shift of allegiances in the endless battle for control of Waystar RoyCo, the fictional News Corp. doppelgänger, led by Logan Roy, a stand-in for Rupert Murdoch. I flipped it off mid-show and thought I might move on to another series. Then a fan of the show urged me to stick with it. The show takes off in Season 3, he said, and reaches a delightful, cynical crescendo in Season 4. Okay, fine. I kept going.

Now that the series has ended, I’m perplexed by all the hype over a show the New Yorker calls a “prestige drama” and the Atlantic dubs "the most enthralling series of our era." Prior to the finale on May 28, DraftKings ran odds on who the next CEO of Waystar would be, akin to a Super Bowl or presidential election. One drooling critic detected echoes of “King Lear” in Logan Roy’s blatant manipulation of his emotionally abandoned offspring. The show apparently became a cultural touchstone. The grandiose insults the Roy family fling at each other represent next-level snark. And of course the “feel-bad” ending of the finale is one for the ages.

I enjoyed Succession. But it’s not top-10 TV. It’s a series of brilliant satirical scenes thinned with relationship tedium and corporate arcana. By the end, I didn’t care if the deal to acquire Waystar, or be acquired by it, went through or fell apart. I just wanted that narrative arc to end. The surprise successor was a crafty twist, deftly set up. But I had long since stopped rooting for any of the contenders, because they’re all so unlikeable. I suspect the show turned out to be popular because of a kind of reverse-flywheel effect in which it’s culturally uncool to dislike a takedown of the American aristocracy. I love the takedown. But it doesn't redeem the show’s major flaws. Here are five of them:

Logan Roy’s peculiar management style. Logan is a media titan who built a multibillion-dollar conglomerate from nothing. So he clearly did something right. Yet he has surrounded himself with incompetent executives—his own adult children—knowing they’re not up to the job. Then he blows his stack every time the indecisive, daddystruck kids disappoint him, as he knows they will. That's hack management. Does not compute.

Nicholas Braun, from left, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong, Brian Cox, Alan Ruck and Matthew Macfadyen attend a special screening of HBO's
Nicholas Braun, from left, Kieran Culkin, Jeremy Strong, Brian Cox, Alan Ruck and Matthew Macfadyen attend a special screening of HBO's "Succession" at the Time Warner Center on Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

Excessive voyeurism. How much schadenfreude can you take? A big part of Succession’s appeal is the inside track on the dysfunction and downfall of narcissistic billionaires who travel by limousine and corporate jet and always have servants standing by. I enjoyed hating the Roys, as millions of others did. But it wasn’t enough. The satire was fun, but it lacked a sense of purpose, other than mockery. Breaking Bad is one of my all-time favorite shows, because the two main characters, Walter and Jesse, follow contrary moral and psychological trajectories that challenge viewer allegiances and force you to adapt along with the characters. In Succession, the only intellectual journey viewers had to take was maintaining the stamina to follow who was backstabbing whom.

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All that bickering. Everybody in the family is always fighting, especially the adult kids trapped in adolescent psyches. Nobody can walk away from an argument or resist the one last barb they think will bring oral triumph. There’s an almost-touching moment in the finale when the three Roy children seem to come together for the sake of the company, and the family, but then they splinter again.

It all reminded me of the highly acclaimed yet wretched Marriage Story, which chronicles the collapse of a marriage and all the painful sniping that goes with it. When I watched that, I found it hard to believe anybody would find two hours of interpersonal misery entertaining. Don’t people have enough dysfunction in their own lives? Maybe with Succession, it’s somehow validating to see that billionaires are just as messed up as the rest of us. Still, I wanted earplugs.

A shallow backstory. What drives Logan Roy? He’s manically competitive and emotionally tyrannical, which is the propellant for everything that happens in the show. But why is he that way? We get a hint near the end: A childhood trauma involving a sibling. But it’s told, not shown, and coming so late, it feels tacked on. If that’s supposed to be Succession’s Rosebud, it didn’t click for me.

The celebrated insults aren’t actually that great. There are several best-insult lists ranking all the putdowns the Roys fling at themselves and others. The most well-known is Logan’s gruff go-to line, “f*ck off,” which is not exactly going to make Oscar Wilde envious. Roman spouts a bunch of verbose, punny word-slatherings that made me wish for captions to help keep it all straight. Lone daughter Shiv is too self-important to say anything fresh or insightful. I laughed the most at Kendall’s deadpan jabs, such as likening his aging father to “the dinosaur … having one last roar at the meteor before it wipes him out.” But how many zingers have to hit the target to justify all the ones that don’t?

That said, credit where due. Succession offers many laugh-out-loud moments and gratifying eviscerations of the pompous. Tom and Greg’s sociopathic interplay brings Machiavelli to life. The Chappaquidick parallel at the end of Season 1 pokes an old Kennedy scandal Democrats thought was long buried. The “boar on the floor” scene in Season 2 is so over-the-top it could be Monty Python. The neo-Nazi news anchor on the fictional American Television Network, ATN, is an adroit sendup of Fox News. The power-sex dynamic between Roman and the longtime Waystar exec Gerri is so wrong it should be a business-school case study. And the ending is appropriately tragicomic.

The New Yorker credits the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, with ending the show while it’s at its peak, instead of milking it for residual revenue. That made me wonder if it couldn’t have been tighter still, packaged into three seasons, say, by right-sizing the personal drama, streamlining the fight for Waystar, and skipping some of the repetitive, overwrought kvetching. Then a voice in my head shouted, “f*ck off!” It was every fan of the show, demanding more, not less.

Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman

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