Column: Could ‘Succession’ save serial television from the blight of the binge?
The best television is serial television, and the best serial television is magic, in the literal sense, as HBO’s “Succession” just proved with its adrenal-gland-abusing jaw-drop of a finale.
Going into the highly anticipated end of Season 3 (dinged by some as a retread of Season 1), all eyes were on Kendall (Jeremy Strong). Deprived in the show’s very first episode of the titular promise, Kendall has spent the series doing everything he could think of to replace his father, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), as head of the family media empire. Having failed at every turn, weighed down with self-loathing (and very unfortunate fashion choices), he closed out this season’s penultimate episode floating in a pool in a way that might suggest imminent suicide.
(The viral New Yorker profile of Strong and his obsessively Method process was also interpreted in some corners as Strong’s version of a farewell. )
Those who were not worrying about Kendall were focused on Roman (Kieran Culkin), the profane and sexually stunted Loki of “Succession,” who after months of trying to prove himself to Logan appeared to blow it all in a single obscene text. Or maybe Shiv (Sarah Snook), who had moved from strategic ingratiation to active backstabbing.
Then, hey presto, Shiv’s husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), emerged as victor/villain like a fanged rabbit out of a Monty Python hat (“it’s only a bunny rabbit!”). “Tom,” the misdirected audience gasped collectively, falling back in appreciative and satisfied shock.
That collective gasp is the holy grail of television, and like any other magic trick, it requires not only great skill but also a real-time audience.
An audience that wants to know what happens next as soon as possible and experience it with others so they can talk about it the minute they know, spoiler alerts be damned.
Who lived? Who died? And where does that leave the Roys? We dig into every twist and turn of “Succession’s” extraordinary Season 3 finale.
Binges are fun, and often therapeutic, allowing viewers to catch past seasons or entire shows they missed, or to immerse themselves completely in another world. But the omnipotence of the binge model has been greatly exaggerated, in part because it, by definition, is a private event rather than a collective experience. Full season drops should never replace serial television because they do not serve the same purpose. Which is why, when HBO announced its own streaming service, HBOMax, Chief Content Officer Casey Bloys made it clear that the two platforms would have distinct programming. Though HBO series would be available on HBOMax, they would continue to roll out one episode at a time.
HBO is not the only network offering the best of both worlds — serialized television and a streaming platform with unique and network content — and streaming platforms have begun experimenting with weekly releases. Some of these, like “Loki” on Disney +, draw a large, collective and wildly theorizing audience. Often at midnight.
Still, there is a beautiful irony to HBO’s commitment to saving serial television. The network that sought for so many years to distance itself from its own genre (“It’s not TV. It’s HBO”) was, in certain disruptive ways, a precursor to streaming. Unbound by demands from advertisers, HBO did all the things broadcast networks couldn’t or wouldn’t — such as running episodes on multiple days of the week and making whole seasons available on DVDs.
Over the years, the creators of HBO series inevitably (and tediously) described what they did as an elongated form of filmmaking. But the network knew better. The network stayed very much in the serial television business because its executives understood that anticipation is half the fun of just about anything, and the other half was deconstruction. “The Sopranos” was a breakthrough show in many ways, not the least of which was prodding a male audience to talk about television the way women, generally speaking, talked about soaps. To analyze, and theorize, to gossip about the characters — what they would do next and why.
In its dramas, HBO has never strayed too far from the “Sopranos” model of Machiavellian politics; “Game of Thrones” was the epic fantasy version of “The Sopranos,” and “Succession” is, at its heart, a streamlined modern version of “Game of Thrones.” Smartphones have replaced swords, and there are black helicopters instead of dragons, but the same brilliantly constructed and performed “play-along” narrative of who’s on top and who’s getting whacked is what keeps viewers enthralled.
You can play along with a show while binging, but it’s a game of solitaire. How can you compare theories, display your expertise or crow about having guessed some big revelation if you’re watching a show alone and at your own pace?
The kind of feints and foreshadowing required to produce a time bomb like Tom’s betrayal of Shiv is something only serial television can do; breaking any narrative into pieces offers viewers time to speculate but also forget. Narrative misdirection works best when your audience is fully invested in following the wrong thing — and full investment takes time.
Unless you are taking copious notes, moments like Tom’s brief and deeply weird tutorial on Nero and Sporus in the fourth episode of this season feel disconnected from the main plot, easily filed away as just more of Tom’s queasy taunting of his submissive sidekick Greg (Nicholas Braun) instead of the prophecy it turned out to be.
Now, of course, everyone is pulling up that episode on HBOMax. Having experienced the shock and awe of such an “unexpected” twist, it is only natural that viewers would want to double dip, to return to the season, or the show, from the beginning, to hunt for clues or inconsistencies the way Marvel fans pore over every new iteration for Easter eggs.
Twenty years ago this week, “The Sopranos” was about to debut on HBO and creator David Chase was sure it would never amount to much.
Streaming originated as a secondary platform, a way for audiences to catch up or re-watch, thereby widening and deepening viewership for the next season or even the next episode. When Netflix helped expand the audience for acclaimed but under-watched series like “Breaking Bad,” it was only a matter of time before the platform did away with the middle man, creating original content and kickstarting a growing number of competitive streamers.
For a few years, the binge model was king. Why wait for someone to hand you small bits of cake every seven days when you can just stick your head in the fridge and gobble up the whole thing in one night? Or eat half now and half tomorrow? It’s your cake, isn’t it?
Sometimes. And sometimes it’s better to share. To show up at an appointed time, sit down at a table with a bunch of other people, and wait. To share your thoughts about the cake, what you thought it was going to taste like and whether or not this is better, to debate which ingredients are most important and how it compares to other cakes.
And sometimes, when you least expect it, a rabbit will jump out of the cake and cover everyone at the table in frosting, which is not only delicious but also something you can talk about for days.
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