Succession vs Arrested Development: The Series Engine
This week we’re going to be talking about Succession. If you haven’t already seen the whole season, don’t worry. We aren’t going to give away any major spoilers.
What we’re going to be looking at this week is the structure of Succession: the way that this piece is actually put together and the way the season is created so that every single episode can feel completely different but also deliver the same emotional experience to its audience.
If you haven’t seen Succession, basically here’s the premise: What if Rupert Murdoch were King Lear?
That’s the structure of the piece. It’s looking at a modern day tycoon, a modern day king (in fact his last name is Roy, which means king). And this patriarch, Logan Roy, is sick and needs someone to take over the “throne”—to take over control of his company.
Like King Lear, he has some children.
Lear has three daughters; Logan Roy has four children. And he needs one of these children, or all of these children, to step up and take over the kingdom of his giant media empire.
And of course, the problem is that all of his children are spoiled and also hurt and broken. There’s nobody who’s actually ready to succeed him.
In many ways Succession is really a show about trust.
It’s a show about what happens when trust—between father and son, father and daughter, husband and wife—gets violated.
It’s about the kinds of choices people make in a world where they can’t trust each other—when the trust between corporations and people, between rich and poor, breaks down. It’s about what happens to our families, and what happens to our society.
And the painful thing about watching Succession is that, because nobody trusts anybody, no one can feel the love that actually exists.
All of these people are the product of a deeply dysfunctional family, run by a deeply dysfunctional patriarch, who of course has demons of his own and his own past that he’s wrestling with.
And what they do so beautifully in Succession is to fully dramatize these characters. Everybody in the show is awful. Everybody in this show is selfish, greedy. They’re the awful, entitled 1%—the worst possible version of those people. Everybody has some inner awfulness that they wreak upon the people around them.
And at the same time, every single character in Succession is totally human.
Every time you think that you’re going to finally write somebody off, the show exposes some humanness in them, some little bit of love, some little flicker of what they could have been, some attempt to do the right thing… and suddenly your heart breaks for them again.
Sure it’s loosely inspired by Lear and loosely inspired by Rupert Murdoch, and as the show creator Jesse Armstrong has noted, loosely inspired by every succession story through the ages from Shakespeare all the way to the royal succession in England.
Even though it’s inspired by all these very serious stories, as a series, the engine of Succession is actually nearly the same as a series that you probably would never equate with it.
In fact, Succession, the series, actually has the same basic structure and the same basic engine as Arrested Development!
You could even pitch Succession as the black-comic-real-world version of Arrested Development.
Like Arrested Development, the engine of Succession is a bunch of maladjusted 1% kids, who are victims of their totally narcissistic father and mother, who are struggling to do their best but don’t have the emotional means to do so even though they have all the money in the world.
The main “kid” in Arrested Development is Michael Bluth, and in Succession it’s Kendall Roy. He’s the one kid who, in each episode, is trying his best to save the family business now that the “king” (that is, the dad) is deposed.
In Succession, Logan Roy is deposed in episode 1 by a stroke. And in Arrested Development, George Bluth is deposed in episode 1 by being arrested.
And what happens in Succession, just as happens in Arrested Development, is that in each episode Kendall has got to find another way of “saving” the family.
Now, Kendall in Succession is a lot less likeable than Michael in Arrested Development.
Kendall in Succession is a recovering drug addict—which we can all respect him for—but he’s also a narcissistic asshole who’s just not that bright, who blows every meeting, who has all the wrong instincts, and who’s always focused on himself rather than the people around him.
But nevertheless, Kendall has been working his whole life to take over this company. He has a vision of what the company should be (even though he may not actually be equipped to accomplish it).
And he’s the only person in the family who’s really taking the company seriously.
And in episode 1 of Succession, just like in episode 1 of Arrested Development, Kendall is poised to take over.
It’s been the succession planning all along, just like Michael’s succession had been planned in Arrested Development.
In the first episode of Succession, Logan decides that his son isn’t ready and instead tries to give over the power to his wife. Just like, in Arrested Development, at the end of episode 1, George gives the company that’s supposed to go to Michael to his wife, Lucille.
And just like in Arrested Development, there are reasons for this that Kendall and Michael don’t completely understand—because both companies are involved in some pretty dark dealings of which their naïve inheritor sons aren’t entirely aware.
But in both situations, the son feels screwed over by the father and trust is broken.
So the structure of each episode, the structure of the season—the way Succession works—is that in each episode Kendall comes up with some way of saving the business (sometimes at the expense of his family), and Logan and Marcia, who each have their own goals and their own intentions, will play and manipulate the children against each other until finally Kendall will compromise his own integrity trying to get what he wants.
And this is exactly the same structure of Arrested Development.
In Arrested Development, in each episode, George and Lucille will play the children against each other, until finally Michael makes a decision that compromises his own integrity and gets punished horrifically for it.
In Arrested Development, all of these machinations are played for comedy.
And in Succession we’re laughing too, but also a part of us is crying. Because in Succession all of these experiences are played with great, dramatic integrity.
What’s really interesting is that there are parallels for a lot of the other characters between Arrested Development and Succession as well.Succession we’re laughing too, but also a part of us is crying. Because in Succession all of these experiences are played with great, dramatic integrity.
We’ve already talked about the parallel between the Michael Bluth character and the Kendall Roy character, but there’s a “George Michael” character as well.
In Arrested Development, the George Michael character is Michael’s naïve son, who’s desperately in love with Maeby, his kind of twisted cousin, and who’s going to follow her around and try to please her doing all kinds of things that compromise his own values in order to get her approval.
In the structure of Succession, the George Michael character is Greg.
Greg is a young, down-on-his-luck kid, who’s related to the family even though he barely knows anybody. He’s sent by his mother, after losing his job at a theme park that’s owned by Logan Roy, to go see Logan and get a job. And Greg ends up under the tutelage of Tom.
Tom is the fiancé of Shiv Roy, who’s probably the smartest of the Roy children. She’s as close as we can get to the equivalent of the Portia de Rossi character, Lindsay, in Arrested Development.
And Tom is kind of like a mix between Tobias and their child Maeby in Arrested Development. He’s this goofy, weird guy.
(If you remember from Arrested Development Tobias is the “never-nude” and Maeby is the twisted cousin who always wants to push things a little bit, who always wants to corrupt George Michael a little bit).
And Tom ends up playing both of those roles in Succession.
Tom is both the odd mentor who is teaching Greg how to be rich, and he’s also the twisted guy who’s using and manipulating Greg in order to get his own desires met and advance his own career and feel more important in the world.
So, you’ve got Tom, who’s a Tobias/Maeby mashup, and you’ve got Greg, who’s the George Michael character—the wide-eyed innocent.
And just like in the structure of Arrested Development, those two usually form a B story in each episode. While the main story is happening, they’re off on their own doing a related story. So, you’ve got a parallel structure there as well.
And then you’ve got Connor Roy, played by Alan Ruck (who you may recognize as Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). And Connor Roy is a little bit “off.”
His closest parallel in Arrested Development is the Buster character. He’s a slightly more real version of the Buster character. Like Buster, he isn’t totally tied to reality, and like Buster, all he wants is to please.
Buster in Arrested Development wants to please his mother and is totally under the thumb of his mother. And Connor in Succession wants to please his dad and is totally under the thumb of his dad.
Connor has tried to reinvent himself as a relaxed hippie who kind of goes with the flow, but the truth is, like Buster, he’s so insecure that he just doesn’t know how to behave in any situation.
Connor, like Buster, is in a relationship that a lot of people would frown upon.
In Buster’s case he’s dating his mother’s best friend, Lucile 2, and in Connor’s case, he’s dating a prostitute with whom he’s desperately in love—and who doesn’t love him back.
And then you’ve got Roman, who you’ve probably figured out by now is the Gob character—the trickster character.
Roman is the guy who doesn’t care about anything but himself. He’s the guy who isn’t able to see outside of the moment and who causes trouble for everyone as he pursues whatever impulse he has at any moment in the story.
And like Gob, Roman thinks of himself as a rebel, as totally independent. But he crumbles every time under the scrutiny of his father.
He’s completely afraid to stand up to his dad. He’s completely afraid to actually be himself.
And of course you’ve got Logan, who’s the George Bluth, and you’ve got Marcia, who’s the Lucille Bluth—these two complicated, scheming parents who just can’t get it right with their children.
Now, is it weird that Succession has the same structural engine as Arrested Development?
No, it isn’t weird at all.
While Arrested Development might be a ridiculous, larger-than-life comedy about the lives of the 1%, Succession is a serious dark comedy about the lives of the 1%.
But both stories are actually dealing with the same problem: what does it mean to have everything except a family that loves you?
What does it mean to have everything except a world of trust? What does it mean to have everything except the confidence that the people around you won’t screw you? And what happens when those confidences are broken? What happens when everybody is out for themselves? What happens in a purely capitalistic world?
It also shouldn’t be a big surprise because the engine of Arrested Development isn’t entirely new either.
In fact the engine of Arrested Development is stolen from Gilligan’s Island.
(I talk a lot about this in a previous podcast about Arrested Development.)
On the simplest level, here’s the engine of Gilligan’s Island:
In each episode of Gilligan’s Island, the professor comes up with a plan to get them off the island, and the whole team works together using coconuts and whatever devices they’ve figured out to try to get off the island.
But in every episode, Gilligan (the Michael/Kendall character on Gilligan’s Island) messes it up. In every episode, the Skipper freaks out. And in every episode, the Howells focus on enjoying their wealth rather than helping the team.
At the end of the day, they all get stuck on the island.
So, did Jesse Armstrong just go and rip off Arrested Development for the structure of his hit series, Succession?
Well, honestly, I don’t know.
Did Michell Hurwitz go and rip off Gilligan’s Island for the structure of his hit series, Arrested Development? Well, honestly, I don’t know that either.
There’s a great fear that happens for all screenwriters, for writers of all kinds, that their work is going to be stolen.
There’s a fear that their great idea, their Academy Award-winning idea, that one idea they have that’s going to set them free— that that idea is going to be taken from them and stolen.
And please don’t get me wrong, plagiarism is really the worst thing that you can do as an artist. Yet, at the same time, we know that all the greatest artists ever have stolen.
Shakespeare stole his plays. Hamlet is just The Ur-Hamlet. Romeo and Juliet is just Pyramus and Thisbē. In fact, Shakespeare’s rip off of Pyramus and Thisbē was so blatant that he later made fun of himself in Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he rips off Romeo and Juliet and makes a comedy out of it.
Great artists steal from everybody, but they never, ever borrow.
So, here’s the difference:
When your neighbor comes over and takes your lawn mower and uses it to mow his lawn and never gives it back, he is borrowing in the worst possible way. He isn’t taking your lawn mower to use for his own purposes: he’s taking your lawn mower to use for your purposes.
On the other hand, if your neighbor takes your lawn mower and transforms it into a helicopter, your neighbor didn’t borrow your lawn mower. He didn’t use it in the same way you did and leave it in a form that should have been returned.
Rather, he let it inspire something and he transformed those parts into something that only he could create.
As artists we want to do the same thing. We don’t want to borrow from the masters and use it to create derivative work that looks just like what they created.
We don’t want to borrow from somebody and reuse their own stuff and not transform it in our own way.
We don’t want to take the engine of Arrested Development and use it for our broad comedy series about a family.
What we want to do instead is steal it: we want to take it from them and transform it in a way where it could never be returned. We want to actually make it our own.
And this is what all the great artists have done through history: we steal from other artists, we steal from our lives.
Picasso stole from Braque and Braque stole from Picasso, and together they created Cubism.
We want to steal but we don’t want to borrow.
So, if you’re working on your own series, go take something you love and give it a huge twist not a little one.
If you’re trying to find an engine, go look for a model in something that seems as unrelated as it can be, and take that model and twist it around and let it grow back up through you.
I don’t actually know if Jesse Armstrong stole the engine of Succession on purpose, because so much of what we experience as artists is a stealing without even realizing we’re stealing.
We overhear something on the subway. We have an experience when we’re a child. We read a book that we forget about that comes back in some way.
But what we want to be doing is not creating somebody else’s characters—not dropping somebody else’s characters into our movie.
Instead, what we want to be doing, just like Jesse Armstrong is doing with Succession, is looking at all the different resources, all the different places of inspiration, bouncing all of those things up against the story that we want to tell.
We want to refine it into something so simple that we can always remember what we’re doing and then allowing our subconscious minds to let it rip, to play around, to riff around inside of that structure, letting elements that we stole and elements that we discovered mix together into a beautiful creation that only we could create.