It’s not a soap opera, it’s HBO


Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox in Succession (Photo: HBO).

There is perhaps no genre of television more derided than the soap opera. When a reviewer calls something ‘soapy’ – whether it’s a movie, TV show, or book – more often than not, it’s some kind of shorthand that the item in question is not worth it. not worth taking seriously.

Certainly, efforts have been made to save the swamp term from opprobrium. In 2013, Akash Nikolas wrote in The Atlantic on the need to understand both Mad Men like a soap opera and see it as a good thing. Along the way, he suggested the same could be said of The Sopranos, and Nikolas’ point can easily be extended to a number of other more recent dramas, especially those airing on HBO, including Big little lies and The defeat.

Which brings us to Succession, now in its third season on HBO. Of all the premium cable networks, HBO has historically done the most to stand out from what we have traditionally thought of as “television,” both in words (for years, its marketing slogan has been “This is not the TV”. television is HBO ”) and in action.

In 2019, Emily VanDerWerff from Vox wrote that HBO “has built its reputation by creating genres that are often ridiculed as easy or empty [and] applying just enough prestige to make them worthy of discussion at dinner parties. She went on to point out that Succession owes a lot to soap operas from years gone by, especially those of the prime-time variety, like Dynasty and Dallas. As is so often the case, it feels like VanDerWerff can’t quite shake the idea that there is something vaguely shameful about the soap opera, and something so fishy about desire. from HBO to improve the genre.

Admittedly, there is a lot of soap in Succession, starting with his central conflict between media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his second eldest son and heir apparent, Kendall (Jeremy Strong). The two are often at odds, Logan seemingly taking pleasure in proving to Kendall how much he depends on his father’s goodwill and largesse for his professional success, and Kendall seeks to prove him wrong.

There’s an equally toxic dynamic at play among Kendall’s siblings, who are all competing for their father’s attention, and all of whom bring their own special (and often salacious) dysfunctions to the table. Younger brother Roman (Kieran Culkin) develops a sexual dynamic with General Counsel Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) relying on her (consensual) dominance over him, while sister Siobhan (Sarah Snook) has a deeply dysfunctional relationship with her husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) who, in turn, develops an equally unsettling dynamic with cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun).

And, like any good soap opera, there are a lot of twists and turns of fortune along the way. Kendall, for example, falls back into addiction and ends up committing manslaughter, a horrific event that pushes him back into his father’s arms. Then there’s the most notable reversal when, at the very end of the second season, Kendall makes his final move to outsmart the old man and bring down his empire. If he cannot be the heir, then he will see everything destroyed.

Yet, soapy as its plot and character development is, the series does everything it can to imbue itself with a kind of aesthetic realism that has itself become a hallmark of the HBO brand. From crisp, laser-like dialogue to detailed art direction and often manic cinematography, the series has all the attributes viewers expect from “quality television.”

Brian Cox brings his searing energy to Logan Roy, a man who has an unassailable sense of his own righteousness and doesn’t particularly care about how many family members he has to crush in the process. The rest of the cast is also polished, avoiding the “excessive” or “obvious” actor choices associated with common soap.

So what are we going to do with all of this? A cynic might say that Succession is just HBO’s latest example of wanting its viewers to have their cake and eat it too, indulging in all the “guilty pleasures” of the soap opera while clinging to the idea that, as VanDerWerff puts it, they are “fancy people.

I would say, however, that HBO is on to something in its refusal to resolve the fundamental tension between the visceral pleasures of lowbrow culture on the one hand and the cerebral appeal of the intellectual on the other, and the network clearly understands that such tension can ultimately produce great drama without losing sight of the human side of the story. Succession, through its artful blend of soap opera tropes and the aesthetic characteristics of high-profile drama, explores the darker side of human relationships. Given its success, it’s clear that there’s still a healthy appetite for such hybrid storytelling.

Succession Airs on HBO Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. ET.

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Dr Thomas J. West III is a freelance writer and co-host of the Queens of the B podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @ tjwest3.

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