Voices: Succession’s win at the Emmys shows everything that’s wrong with television today

·5-min read
British screenwriter Jesse Armstrong (center) accepts the award for Outstanding Drama Series for ‘Succession’ along with the cast and crew during the 74th Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California, on 12 September 2022 (PATRICK T FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
British screenwriter Jesse Armstrong (center) accepts the award for Outstanding Drama Series for ‘Succession’ along with the cast and crew during the 74th Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California, on 12 September 2022 (PATRICK T FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Succession won Outstanding Drama at the Emmys last night, for the second year in a row. It defeated crowd favorites such as Severance (a critics’ darling and a fan favorite), Squid Game (Netflix’s most-watched TV series in a foreign language), and Stranger Things (which holds the same record but in English).

Over the course of its three seasons, Succession has become an awards season behemoth – one you simply expect to see score nominations and wins across multiple categories. It led the pack going into this year’s ceremony with 25 nominations. On the night, it won four trophies, not exactly sweeping the evening, but still earning that prestigious Best Drama award. And that wasn’t exactly a surprise, either: Succession was one of the big favorites to win in that category, because, well – it’s just that good.

But Succession didn’t start winning Emmys right out of the gate. Its first season aired in 2018. The 2019 Emmys were promising for the show, but things still looked a little uncertain, and a success of the magnitude we now know was not guaranteed. “Succession only pulled five nominations for its first season, but a flood of critical support helped it snag two big wins: Main Title Music for the incredibly deserving Nicholas Britell, and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for creator Jesse Armstrong,” IndieWire reflected at the time. “That’s a great foundation for the series to make a run in 2020 – hey, it’s never too early to think about next year.”

It certainly did make a run in 2020. That year, Succession’s second season earned 18 nominations and won four awards, including the coveted Outstanding Drama prize. Much like last night, that win was accompanied by some deserved victories on the acting side: In 2020, Jeremy Strong won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, and during the most recent ceremony, Matthew Macfayden took Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. (In case you’re wondering why Succession wasn’t represented at the 2021 Emmys: its third season aired between October and December of that year, after production was delayed by the pandemic, so it had to wait until the following year’s awards season.)

Succession started out good – the dialogue was exceptional from the get-go, the scenes well-executed and the characters intriguing from the first handful of episodes – and what a marvel it is that it was afforded time to become great. The show’s premise could have grown stale. How long can we reasonably be expected to watch the adult children of a fictional media tycoon compete with one another to lead the family business? Three seasons later, I’m still not tired of it, because the show has built on itself, allowing its characters to lean into their worst tendencies and wreak havoc in spectacular, often unexpected ways.

Something happens when you allow a TV series to go on. The viewer’s familiarity with the characters becomes part of the storytelling process. This allows small details to take on more meaning – a facial expression here, a one-liner there. The writers can get away with more ambitious plot points, too, without stretching believability. A particular situation might seem outlandish, but we know these characters, and we know they would be outlandish in just this way. Succession’s season two finale (in which — spoiler alert — Kendall Roy finally betrays his father to take control of his company, thus becoming the “killer” this same father told him he needed to be) only makes sense if you’ve seen Kendall struggle with his identity for the 20 episodes prior. The season three finale (again, spoiler alert), in which the same Kendall confesses to his siblings his responsibility for another person’s death is spectacular only because we know he’s sat on this secret for 19 more episodes.

Succession’s continued triumphs are a testament to the power of television: it can give stories a place to grow. This is a bittersweet assessment, considering how many shows have been canceled in recent years before they even had a chance to take off.

The funny, surreal, female-led show Tuca & Bertie only lasted one season on Netflix, before Adult Swim rescued it from oblivion. Paper Girls, also a female-led series, will not get a second season on Amazon Prime despite an enviable 90 percent critics score on Rotten Tomatoes (and an equally impressive audience score of 88 percent). The Baby-Sitters Club only aired on Netflix between 2020 and 2021 before being axed, despite critical acclaim and the fact that it filled a clear gap in the market. “For fans, the end of The Baby-Sitters Club is disappointing because so few series fill its specific niche: stories about preteen girls that don’t oversexualize or infantilize them,” Vulture wrote in March this year.

The Chair, Netflix’s academia-themed comedy-drama, which was the talk of the town last year, appears stuck in limbo. “No one’s called me, so I’m guessing that’s not happening,” Sandra Oh, its lead actor, told Variety in February, of a second season. “I would have loved it, because I just thought that there was so much material there to potentially explore. Because the setting and the characters were established… I’m just happy that it happened, it was a great experience. But I am sad that it’s over.”

So much time is spent establishing settings and characters in a TV show, it’s a shame not to take advantage of the possibilities that open up once the introductions are out of the way. I can’t help but notice, too, that the shows listed above are overwhelmingly female-led. I would love to have seen them get afforded the same chances as their legacy brethren.

Would all these series have earned Emmys if they had been allowed to go on? Maybe not. But Succession’s staying power is a reminder of the beautiful things that can happen when a show is allowed to mature. It’s not just about familiarity. It’s not just about comfort viewing, either. There are stories that can be told only if they’re given enough time to blossom. The fact that streaming platforms seem so cancel-happy right now doesn’t bode well for the quality of our viewing future.