I slept through most of the eighth episode of the second season of Succession. As I felt myself drifting off (it had been a hard day), I thought to myself that I could always watch it again; but when I woke up, I realised I was totally fine with missing it. I saw the first five minutes and the last five minutes and got the gist, as it were.
It’s had some rave reviews, has Succession, and it has got a kind of addictive, soapy quality to it. It’s yet another TV series about horrible rich people, but something about their horribleness, and the sense that you’re watching a roman-à-clef, with thinly disguised Murdoch idiot children bickering over their father’s empire, makes it more watchable than, say, Billions, or Downton Abbey.
But then it kind of goes along and keeps going but nothing much changes or happens. Oh, sure, there are corporate raids and shareprice crashes, whatever, but these are no more interesting than they are on the news, and its the human relationships that remain static and unchanging. This one is jealous of that one; this other one is irredeemably stupid; this one is flailing helplessly. And when the patriarch asks them, disingenuously, to give him an opinion on a matter of import, they’re too fucked up and ignorant and so desperate for his approval that they are hopeless.
But you can only take so much of this kind of psychodrama. Nobody learns anything, nobody changes, and anyway, you don’t care enough to want to stick around.
The problem with a show like this is that the reviewer is done and dusted after 1-4 episodes, but sticking around to watch the end is a different experience. One week the family fly here and fuck around and stab each other in the back; the following week they fly to London and do the same thing; and the week after that they fly to Dundee and do the same thing. And there a cringeworthy moments galore, and if you like to cringe, cringe away. But I’m rapidly losing interest.
In the real world, do we care who takes over from Murdoch père? Sure, the man has spread his poison for 50-odd years and is probably in some degree responsible for our Brexit mess, but I’m not one to point fingers at powerful individuals. Brexit was a collective enterprise. The people who work for these powerful men, who do their bidding, who write the words that result in the toxic discourse, who present the news programmes and apologise in Parliament and spread lies for money: these people are the real enablers. Succession shows this to an extent, with the patriarch’s immediate minions trying to outdo each other in venality and ruthlessness, but of course, the cancer spreads deep and wide.
Apple held an event last week in order to announce a bunch of services; notably, a TV service and an Apple-branded credit card, backed by Goldman Sachs — the bank who brought you 2008 Crash: The Fuckening. While watching the cringeworthy presentation of Apple’s TV offering, and as we all gear up for the forthcoming final season of Game of Thrones, it occurred to me that our era of Peak TV might have peaked. A bit.
Because what comes next? None of the attempts to imitate GoT have caught on: TheVikings, and that silly Britannia thing, for example, were pale shadows of the richly textured GoT. But It’s hard to see that HBO have got anything else in the pipeline. Westworld had a stunning first season, but stuttered in S2 and seemed to be running out of ideas (the difference, perhaps, between being based on a book series and being based on a single Michael Crichton screenplay).
Looking elsewhere, Amazon’s American Gods was interesting, but again: we’re talking about a standalone novel adaptation vs. a hugely detailed book series. If you’re stretching things out rather than the opposite, then it all starts to get a bit… stretchy.
Everything else that’s out there at the moment is, at best all right, and at worst appears to fall into the how did this get made? category. I’ve expressed my love of Amazon’s Bosch series before, but I know I’m in a niche, and it’s not a show that even gets consideration on Tim Goodman’s latest musings about great cop shows. Mr Goodman’s expressed desire is for a new great cop show to come along, and that is a real question isn’t it? Southland was superb but got no traction. And The Wire was a long time ago.
“A haven for players on the edge of retirement, who are lured by big money to play one more season.
Looking at Apple’s presentation last week, they were making a lot about a little. Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories might have some interesting episodes, but it’s in the nature of anthology shows that it isn’t going to build up to anything. Apple’s morning TV drama looked like it might want to be The Newsroom, but the Newsroom, while I personally liked it, didn’t set the world on fire, and we didn’t get much of a taste of Apple’s thing to know any different. And the other stuff looked okay, but I’m not sure it would entice me to pay a subscription.
Mostly, I got two impressions. First, that all of these people had been lured by a lot of money, that Apple had been bounced by their desperation to grow their own content into paying too much for too little. I mean, if you look at the best recent shows on television, most of them weren’t star vehicles. GoT has made stars; the main players in The Americans were respectable actors, but not movie stars; and Counterpart had JK Simmons, who is brilliant, but he’s not a bums-on-seats kind of actor. Television doesn’t really work like that, does it? You don’t really tune in for the stars. It’s notable that ER first made a star of George Clooney, and then survived his departure. NYPD Blue made a star of David Caruso, and then thrived when he left (he didn’t). And, news just in, The Good Fight might be even better than The Good Wife, now the titular actor has departed. The Closer was marvellous, but then Major Crimes was just as good.
In short, Apple are backing the wrong kind of horse. The second thing that occurred to me during their presentation was that they were very focused on the United States. Sure, it’s a big market. But Amazon and Netflix are global. Probably the smartest thing Netflix does is content in a wide variety of original languages. Apple are offering us an American TV show about an American TV show. I mean, how far up their own arse do they want to get? And another kind of anthology show telling the stories of immigrants to the USA. I know it’s all part of the political moment, but still: there was too much navel gazing in their launch. The “stories” they want to tell are all US-centric it seems.
In wider television terms, I’m trying to think of anything I’m kind of looking forward to coming back, in the same way I’m looking forward to GoT, and I’m struggling. The Americans is over. Travelers wrapped up. Starz has cancelled Counterpart. Two seasons of that means it will never achieve true greatness. If I’m honest, the only reason I’m looking forward to Game of Thrones is because I’ve invested so much time in it already. Quite a lot of the most recent season was a bit silly. Where is the next great show that enters the cultural conversation going to come from? HBO might be absorbed into Warner, might never be the same again. And, like Netflix, their track record has not been that great lately. More hits than misses, etc., which has always been true of television.
But there are special circumstances in the Peak TV era. Now there are so many showsand so many services, the audience is thoroughly dispersed. The BBC might still get people talking about The Bodyguard and Line of Duty, but there are always a number of caveats. First of all, they’re not as good as they think they are. The Bodyguard started strong and became preposterous quite quickly. Line of Duty has pulled some bold strokes but have we now seen all its tricks? Those long, tense interview scenes are great: but how many variations on that can you spin? Just how many of that small team can turn out to be villains? And: short series, short orders, so cannot hope to obtain the greatness of even a modern season of 10-13 episodes.
Amazon’s forthcoming Lord of the Rings nonsense seems doomed to fail. Or at least I hope it does. Haven’t we had enough of that particular franchise? I suppose you might be appealing to the superfans, but that’s not a growth audience, and it’s a tired old world, the hobbits and the rings.
I can think of a few properties that, if adapted, would get me firing up the credit card instantly. But I’d be truly amazed to see any of them happen. There are so many scripted series now, and the talent pool as well as the audience is very diluted. Watching the Apple event last week, I couldn’t help but note how many of the A-listers were veterans. It reminded me of nothing so much as Major League Soccer. A haven for players on the edge of retirement, who are lured by big money to play one more season. Here: come see all our faded stars who are past their peak. Just like peak TV, perhaps.