Farewell, Barry and Succession – the end of a glorious TV era

Bill Hader as Berry Berkman in ‘Barry' (HBO/Sky)
Bill Hader as Berry Berkman in ‘Barry' (HBO/Sky)

Sunday 28 May: mark it for posterity. The end of this week marks the end of an era for television. On HBO in the US, and Sky and NOW in the UK, Succession will come to an end, after four seasons. The comedy-drama, which follows the bitter power struggles among a family of media tycoons, is by now fairly widely accepted as the best TV series of the past decade, and one of a small handful of candidates for the title of Best of All Time. Immediately afterwards, on the same channel(s), Barry – the smart, twisty dramedy about a hitman turned actor – will air its final episode, having also lasted just four seasons. Overnight, the medium of TV is going to get drastically poorer.

Taken at a glance – and if you leave aside any ongoing mass writers’ strikes – the TV landscape is overall in fine fettle. There were more TV shows last year than there ever have been before, many of which feature lavish production budgets and big-name film stars. This year has already seen a number of worthwhile series make their way to screens, including The Last of Us, Poker Face, Party Down and Jury Duty. But none of these shows can hold a candle to Succession. In modern TV, there is an abundance of the very good, and a terrible scarcity of the truly great. Barry has been one of Succession’s closest rivals, and it’s not particularly close. The excellent Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul finished last year, too, as did Donald Glover’s Atlanta: how many of the “best shows currently on TV” from even just a year ago are still going to be around next week? It’s all looking rather past tense.

There are, I suppose, reasons to be cheerful. Though Barry is coming to an end, its creator-star (and, in this last season, sole director) Bill Hader has established himself as a creative force to watch. The former Saturday Night Live funnyman has been an enjoyable presence in film and TV for the better part of two decades, but Barry was a revelation: who knew that such dark, Coenesque depths lurked within the man once known for being Superbad’s goofy manchild cop? Whether Hader makes the transition to film, or sticks with TV, Barry is surely a sign that there are big things to come. (Though he told The Independent earlier this year that his first order of business, post-Barry, was to take his first holiday in a decade.) The same can be said for other cast and crew members, such as Sarah Goldberg, who is nothing short of brilliant as the messed-up partner of Hader’s character, and Hiro Murai, who is one of the most assured and impressive directors working in the medium.

This line of thinking also applies to Succession, whose creator Jesse Armstrong previously co-created one of the funniest British sitcoms ever made, in Peep Show. Succession often gives the impression of bottled lightning but this is not necessarily the case. It was consistently able to add new cast members and change its story direction, without ever losing any momentum; this is a testament, mainly, to the strength of its writing. Great artists do not suddenly become worse overnight. Whatever comes next won’t be Succession, but who’s to say it couldn’t be as good?

It is easy, for dour pessimists like me, to look at this Sunday and conclude that we are simply running out of great television. But in a creative industry this large, there will always be something to look forward to. Remarkable series such as The Bear and Hacks could yet run for years. The Wire’s David Simon pumps out consistently outstanding work, whether it’s standalone miniseries (We Own This City; The Plot Against America) or longer form shows (The Deuce; Treme). On the UK side, Shane Meadows returns next week with new period drama The Gallows Pole; his oeuvre is as rich and essential as it gets. So, yes, TV might be losing its crown jewels on Sunday. But it won’t be declaring bankruptcy any time soon.

‘Succession’ and ‘Barry’ are available to watch in the UK on Sky and NOW