On Succession, likeable characters, and the scope of a series

succession hbo brian cox jeremy strong kieran culkin sarah snook alan ruck matthew macfadyen nicholas braun jesse armstrong adam mckay

Succession’s first episode recently aired for the first time in the UK; in the US, meanwhile, the HBO series has just finished its first season.

What’s been interesting to observe, though, is the narrative that’s built up around Succession. Certainly, the series is well acclaimed – or, at least, it is now. There’s been a noticeable trend of people who watched the pilot episode and gave up, only returning because of the strong word of mouth from those who did continue with the series; in terms of the show’s reception, Succession is the story of a programme that lost a lot of viewers before eventually reclaiming them.

It’s not difficult to understand why someone might not want to continue watching Succession after finishing the first episode. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, exactly; in a lot of ways, it’s quite compelling. However, focusing as it does on a family seemingly comprised entirely of deeply horrible people, Succession isn’t a programme that goes out of its way to endear viewers to its characters – indeed, the exaggerated displays of ostentatious wealth that punctuate the pilot episode are no doubt intended to elicit contempt for the characters. There’s no ‘pat the dog’ moment, with director Adam McKay and writer Jesse Armstrong going to great lengths to ensure that, by the end of the episode, you’re going to hate more or less all of them.

So!

A few scattered thoughts here on Succession, one of HBO’s latest dramas. (Well, I’m inclined to be difficult and call it a comedy, but still.) What I found quite interesting about Succession is the way that the conversation around it developed, with a lot of people beginning the series, abandoning it, and then returning because of strong word of mouth from those who stuck with it.

That got me thinking a little bit about likeable characters (I’ve been winding myself up a lot about whether or not “likeable” is the correct spelling, and I’m still not wholly sure) and… I called it “the scope of a series”, but what I mean is the amount of time we’re willing to give a programme to unfold and show its full hand. That had been on my mind for a while anyway, ever since I saw a couple of reviews really rip into Genius: Picasso based on its first four episodes, so it was good to get a chance to talk about it.

I’m not, admittedly, entirely sure anything I said made sense, but then I’m never especially sure of that to be honest! I always find the more editorial/opinion esque pieces a little more difficult. Something to work on, I suppose.

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How Come Home asks audiences to understand characters that are difficult to like

come home christopher eccleston paula malcolmson bbc one danny brocklehurst

It’d be easy, really, to dislike Marie. Certainly, the premise will predispose most of the audience against her; Come Home follows the story of Greg, a single father, and Marie, the wife who walked out on him eleven months prior. Immediately, Come Home subverts typical expectations about mothers and fathers, and poses the audience questions that could prove difficult. Can they understand Marie, despite their assumptions?

The first episode focuses primarily on Greg, establishing the status quo of his and his children’s lives following Marie’s departure; there’s something significant about the fact that audiences are given Greg’s perspective first, immediately inviting them to sympathise with him ahead of Marie. As the question of why she left hangs over the piece, what Come Home presents is a family clearly struggling. Christopher Eccleston gives a quiet, almost defeated performance; it’s dripping with melancholy, wearing his heartbreak on his sleeve. He’s easy to empathise with, a lonely man who seems full of empathy himself, taking in Brenna and her son to protect them from her abusive husband. When he sees Marie, all he wants is to know why – and so do we.

I must admit, I found this show quite frustrating, particularly the third episode. I watched them all in one evening, one after the other; I’d been under the understanding that it was going to be something a little more Rashomon-esque, with each episode retelling the same event from different perspectives. It wasn’t that, in the end – though admittedly I do still wonder if perhaps that would’ve been better.

What we got was, I suspect, almost intentionally frustrating. Certainly, it was thought-provoking, and they managed to avoid making it too black and white in terms of either Greg or Marie being straightforwardly ‘correct’. I do wish, though, a little more time had been dedicated to fleshing out Marie’s motivations in the third episode; without spoiling it particularly, in case anyone does want to seek it out and watch it, certain choices that she makes there feel borne more out of a desire on the part of the screenwriter to prompt conflict rather than anything else. (Especially given the ending.)

Still, though. I really enjoyed Christopher Eccleston in this, even the slightly uncanny valley Irish brogue rather than his usual Northern accent; Come Home, if nothing else, did affirm my belief that I’ll watch Christopher Eccleston in basically anything.

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