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Is Succession a Comedy?

Photo: HBO

It’s no surprise that Succession got an Emmy nomination this year. Based on its appearance alone, it looks and feels like an Emmy contender in the Best Drama category: It’s an hour-long HBO show, telling a dark story about bad people, filled with the prestige markers that suggest Very Serious Television. Its costumes and settings are full of earth tones, but the kind of earth tones you can tell are extremely expensive and have names like “whitestone” and “nori.” Its central idea — members of a family destroying each other to gain power — is classic tragic material. What could be more dramatic than King Lear?

But it’s weird to see Succession nominated as a drama, because, in so many ways, Succession is a comedy. While the Television Academy now categorizes shows by format rather than genre — meaning that, as far as the Emmys are concerned, there’s no such thing as an hour-long comedySuccession’s drama nomination points to something fascinating, subtle, and productively uneasy at the center of the show. Trying to define its genre gets at questions not just about its fundamental identity, but also at the way viewers see it, something that’s particularly thorny for a show that teases us about whether we should love or loathe its characters, whether we should root for them or hope that they fail, whether we should find their fears and anxieties sympathetic or pitiful. The answer is that while we can feel for the Roys, while their lives are tragic and their anxieties are real, Succession’s core identity comes from satirizing them and their hyper-privileged world.

The baseline comedic feature of Succession is the simplest one. It is funny. It is peppered with jokes and absurdities, everything from the Vaulter headlines, to the Roy family insults, to the conceit of Cousin Greg’s presence in the show at all. Succession is often funny in the way slapstick can be funny, a humor that relies on the primal Schadenfreude of watching someone else get hurt, even if the pain in this case is nearly always psychic rather than physical. But it’s also funny in the way of satire, a more puncturing, slicing kind of humor. This is the humor of Cousin Greg asking, with concern, whether a news network should maybe not lie, and then being told to “man the fuck up” because this is not “fucking Charles Dickens world.” It’s the humor of Kendall announcing that Vaulter’s only profitable sections are “food and weed,” which is why they’ve each been assigned an editor and five interns. It stings, but it also earns a snorting laugh.

The key to the show’s brutal sense of humor is right in the opening credits, which are full of self-serious clips from a privileged family’s past and present: Kennedy-esque vacation homes, dour children in formal wear, glassy skyscrapers and newspapers shuffling through printing machines. But in both seasons, the credits also feature brief shots from the cable-news channel owned by Waystar Royco. In season one, the most prominent chyron read, “Why Are So Many of Our Older Celebrities Dying?” In season two, it has been replaced with “Gender Fluid Illegals May Be Entering the Country ‘Twice.’” Underneath, there’s a scrolling report: “Senator Wants to Create ‘Supremer’ Court.”

If Succession’s credits were only family portraits and corporate cityscapes, if satire was an occasional sidebar for the series rather than its bedrock anchor, its identity would tilt toward drama. Like Mad Men, or The Sopranos, or many other great dramas, it would be dark in a way that also happened to be funny. But satire is as much a part of Succession as sadness; its opening credits would make no sense without the sly punch line of those jokes to undercut the rest. Even Nicholas Britell’s opening theme supports that sense of ridiculous calamity: It is filled with melodic riffs that hesitantly step higher and higher, only to immediately slide downward and then crash in deep, disastrous, dissonant chords; an initially delicate piano becomes a shrieking violin. Where Mad Men’s credits featured Don Draper falling from a Madison Avenue building only to land coolly on a sofa, the Succession theme reminds us of someone falling and getting up and then falling again, a sad clown slipping on a relentless sequence of banana peels.

More often than not, Succession is also directed and edited as a comedy. Frequently, it relies on a reaction-shot move that’s familiar from The Office and Veep: It’s a visual language that replicates a joke’s setup and punch-line structure, where the reaction shot makes clear that the previous line was a joke, especially when the reaction shows the recipient getting the emotional hit, the punch of the punch line. Sometimes the camera even zooms in on a character’s reaction, creating just enough visual structure around the moment that it feels as though a narrator has stepped in to mediate between what’s on the screen and how the audience receives it. It’s a pause that makes the joke land more sharply, but it’s also a chance for the show to say, “See? See how unreasonable and foolish this all is?”

These comedic elements — the show’s visual language, its joke density, its hyper-specific satire of media and wealth — are comedy operating on a micro scale. They are small details, often more to do with setting and tone than with a deeper genre identity. Succession as a comedy on this scale is like a thousand tiny needle jabs, humor that is designed to constantly rub against the drama and tragedy of the Roys’ lives. Because although Succession is comedic on a micro scale, it is unquestionably tragic on a human scale, on the level of the day-to-day experience of these characters’ lives. They are a family who cannot love one another, whose entire understanding of the world is built on distrust and fear, and whose immense privilege has become a prison of their own design. On a human scale, Succession is a story about unhappiness.

If that were the series’ whole identity, if it were a show that’s funny about tiny stuff and sad about big stuff, then Succession absolutely would be a drama. Like King Lear or other Shakespearean tragedies, which its characters reference almost compulsively, it might have moments of lightness and wry self-reflection, but it would ultimately be a story about a serious world that destroys everyone who lives in it.

But there’s an additional layer to Succession that makes the show twist back around to comedy, even while its human-scale tragedies chug along with increasing levels of despair and pain. It is funny in its tiny things, it is brutally dramatic on a human scale, and then, from the 10,000-foot view, Succession once again becomes ticklishly silly, ludicrous and sly on the proportion of a fantastic cosmic joke. From that faraway vantage point, these people and their world are a joke. Their helicopters and apartments are obscene. Their supposedly luxurious parties seem like uncomfortable nightmares. The prestige trappings and mannerisms meant to make them seem like Extremely Important Grown-Ups — the clothing, the hobbies, the servants, the slicing insults, the political games — only make the Roys look like irresponsible children living spoiled, consequence-free lives. On the uppermost level, Succession is a comedy of manners, a satire on the absurdity of wealth. The Roys’ lives might be tragic, but their whole world is laughable.

Ultimately, Succession is a comedy because it never forgets that the tragedy of these people’s lives is an elaborate joke they have played on themselves, a game they’ve chosen to play that they can only ever lose. The show perpetually references Shakespearean tragedy, but Tom Wambsgams is not Hamlet’s Polonius, the ludicrous, ineffectual schemer in a once-grand kingdom. He’s Malvolio in Twelfth Night, the melancholic jester in an ill-fitting suit who just wants to be loved, but who’s caught in a world with rules he doesn’t ever fully understand — and the rules make no sense anyhow because all the usual consequences have been suspended. No matter how sad it is, Succession’s foremost idea is that its world is preposterous. Preposterous things are also real, and that doesn’t make them any less absurd or less heartbreaking. But it does mean that Succession gives us permission to laugh at them.

Is Succession a Comedy?