Writing for TV: Succession Pilot
Over the years, there have been many excellent television series, with HBO being one of the best networks for high-quality shows. As writers, it’s imperative for us to analyze great shows to see how they were launched, their success, and most importantly, the writing lessons we can learn.
Succession is currently one of the most popular and critically acclaimed television series, recently renewed for a fourth season. With this in mind, below will discuss writing for TV and what we can learn from Succession, specifically its pilot. We’ll highlight what it's about, lying and themes, characters and dialogue, and much more.
Still from 'Succession'. Photo credit: IMDb
What is Succession About?
Succession is an American dark comedy TV series made by Jesse Armstrong. It debuted on HBO on June 3, 2018, and is one of the most popular current series. The series fixates on the Roy family, the broken proprietors of Waystar RoyCo, a worldwide media and entertainment conglomerate.
The family is battling for control of the organization amid vulnerability about the health of the family's patriarch, Logan Roy (Brian Cox). In October 2021, the series was renewed for a fourth season, with the show gaining a large following since its pilot.
Besides Cox, the series stars Jeremy Strong as Kendall, Kieran Culkin as Roman, and Sarah Snook as Siobhan ('Shiv'), Logan's kids utilized by the organization. Matthew Macfadyen stars as Tom Wambsgans, Shiv's significant other and Waystar leader; Nicholas Braun as Greg Hirsch, Logan's grandnephew likewise utilized by the organization; Alan Ruck as Connor, Logan's oldest youngster; and Hiam Abbass as Marcia Roy, Logan's better half.
Greed, Power, and Its Theme in the Pilot
The pilot focuses on the members of the Roy family preparing to celebrate the 80th birthday of Logan. Normally one would expect a birthday of this magnitude to be fun and exciting. Instead, it becomes a big disappointment to the family when Logan announces he isn’t stepping down as CEO.
It becomes a point of turmoil, specifically with Kendall, since the entire family is power-driven, looking for ways to build their personal success. The end of the pilot especially rings this true when Lawrence delivers the news to Kendall about his father’s stroke:
Congratulations. We’re a top-ten media company.
He shakes Kendall’s hand.
Kendall’s phone starts going.
Second of all. Your dad just had a brain hemorrhage.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry for you.
Are you? Is this --
Kendall doesn’t know what these words mean, is it grim trash talk, or a mistake, or truth, or what?
Lawrence goes to sit down. But first, he leans in.
But you just invited me into your chicken coup. Daddy’s dying, and I’m going to eat you all. One by one.
Kendall is in shock. Answers his phone.
Characters Saying What They Mean and Its Importance
The ending dialogue above from the Succession pilot is a clear example of how characters say what they mean. These characters are unapologetically greedy and power-hungry, declaring what they want without worrying about consequences. It’s a sign that the characters were very privileged without any fear.
That character arc and development is essential when you discuss the main logline. Though it’s easy to fall under the cliche umbrella, writing a story about characters in this particular lifestyle will have an added bonus of anger, sarcasm, and the ability to lie. Succession stays true to reality enough where people can understand the characters.
How Succession Crafts Dialogue
More than most shows on TV, Succession's dialogue sings when you hear it. Certainly, loads of the lines are loaded up with rough and diverting profanity. Yet, the show utilizes these bits of dialogue to set up the more profound subjects.
The Roy family runs a news conglomerate, yet the characters feel far from telling the truth and being informative. It’s about money, power, and growing the company. Nothing else matters, except for individual personal goals to move up within the company. The characters swear, lie, are sarcastic, and aren’t afraid to speak their mind, something that’s very comical as an audience.
Getting to the Point
Since Succession is a show based on characters worming their way around, how do they express their intention without us knowing precisely what they're saying? The answer has to do with the fast-paced nature of the script, where each arc gets to the point. We’re introduced to the company, characters, and the set-up for the next episode very quickly, even with it being an hour.
The Premise in Succession and TV Pilots
Many amateur screenwriters fail to realize the importance of a premise in a show. The point of Succession doesn’t take the route of us hating a bunch of rich people but instead lets us watch as their collective stories implode with one another. It’s a matter of demonstrating that wealth corrupts those who hold it. Every writer should realize the premise and theme are connected beyond just the pilot.