Succession's 3rd season premiere seems to think it's still 2019
A pandemic, presidential election, and failed insurrection later, the once-sharp show has no new ideas
The first table read for HBO's Succession took place on Nov. 8, 2016. The afterparty was supposed to double as a Hillary Clinton victory celebration — until it wasn't. "I think [filmmaker Adam McKay] said, 'Well, we're making the right show,'" Sarah Snook, who plays Shiv, recalled to The Hollywood Reporter.
When Succession returns on Sunday for its highly-anticipated third season, a significant four years, 11 months, and nine days — and nine Emmys — will have passed since that initial read. But while the pathetic, petty infighting between the inept and scheming Roys once resonated as a hilarious mockery of America's rotten power class, the new season's first episode doesn't have quite the same sting it once did. There are no new ideas here, nor even acknowledgment that the nation Succession critiques has undergone dramatic changes since the second season ended in 2019.
Succession was never about the Trumps per se (the Murdochs and the Kennedys are more immediate comparisons), but it was about the gross, bumbling incompetence and debilitating narcissism of the nation's elite. "Succession plugs right into the current American moment, where we're coming to the collective realization that the wealthy class that controls so much of our politics and our society is a bee's hive of morons who are simply coasting on luck, privilege, and a system that favors the wealthy at the expense of everyone else," Salon wrote in its review of the brilliant second season. The New Republic, in its own review, called Succession "an early contender for the most zeitgeisty TV show of the Trump era," dubbing the Roy family "a stand-in for a wider ruling class whose existence wasn't exactly a secret prior to 2016, but which was never taken seriously enough. Only after a few years of absorbing the shock of Trump's victory can we fully engage with the kind of people who, we now understand, are really in charge."
But what happens to a show reflecting an era, when that era is — for the time being, anyway — over? Because while Succession picks up right where it left off in 2019, its audience is in a distinctly different place. A pandemic, presidential election, and failed insurrection later, suddenly Roman and Shiv's quibbling feels more wearying than searing and hilarious.
Don't get me wrong, I love Succession and have confidently called it the best show on air. But the slow start of the third season, which begins in the immediate aftermath of Kendall (Jeremy Strong) backstabbing his father (Brian Cox) in the season two finale, feels like a retread of themes it's already been over many times. This is not a fresh step forward for the series.
Succession still offers immersive escapism, to be sure. There's still a delicious pleasure in the interactions between Kendall and Greg (Nicholas Braun), or Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Geri (J. Smith-Cameron). Juliana Canfield does wonderful work in her return as Kendall's wide-eyed, phone-juggling assistant, Jess Jordan. And the show remains at its strongest when highlighting the absolute absurdity of extreme wealth and privilege: One of the most hilarious scenes in the opening episode is a phone call between Geri and a presidential aide as Geri attempts to not-so-subtly strong-arm the feds off Logan's case.
But at a certain point — when Shiv, Roman, and Kendall return to plotting in their respective corners (or, should I say, "action stations"?) upon hearing the news that Logan is looking for a temporary replacement CEO — I felt my attention starting to flag. Haven't we been through all this before? Is this still fun?
Succession didn't need to be overtly topical in this new season. In fact, the decision to skip rewriting scripts to incorporate the COVID-19 pandemic is refreshing. And despite those rapturous Trump-era reviews, Succession is timeless in the sense that, though there might be a new administration in the White House, underlying power structures and meritocracy in our country have hardly faded overnight. But to keep its critique compelling while evidence of out-of-touch elites has reached newly absurd levels in our own reality, Succession needs to tread new ground. Its third-season premiere fails in that regard.
Perhaps it's too harsh to judge the show by this first episode alone. The premiere is, by necessity, a table-setter for the events to come, a subtle refresher for audiences of who the characters are, what's motivating them, and where they stand since we saw them last. Some rehashing is to be expected. But there needs to be more to keep viewers around.
Watching wealthy, self-absorbed, entitled, overgrown children make fools of themselves is plenty of fun, for a while. Yet after half a decade of watching this behavior both on- and off-screen, it feels a bit too familiar.