Editor’s Note: Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. A DC native, she is the associate editor and podcast co-host at WTEA/PBS’ British TV website, Telly Visions. Find her on Twitter @anibundel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the writer’s own. View more opinion on CNN.
It is not easy to go out on top, especially in the world of entertainment. As long as audience demand exists, there’s a producer ready to greenlight one more season, one more album, one more sequel, one more farewell tour. However, with the series finale of HBO’s “Succession” arriving over Memorial Day weekend, the world of TV is once again being reminded that one of the hallmarks of a truly great series is to know when to call it quits.
There was a time when TV networks, especially HBO, made a point of ending shows at the right moment, be it after three seasons of “Deadwood” or six of “The Sopranos” in the pre-streaming era. Other dramas that ended at the perfect moment: AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” Classic sitcoms like “Friends” and “Parks and Recreation” also walked away before it became too much.
Since the arrival of streaming, however, the endless hunger for content has become the gaping maw every production studio frantically feeds. HBO has sometimes shown discipline in recognizing when not to renew, with 2019’s “Chernobyl” and “Watchmen” both having perfect limited runs (though creator Damon Lindelof had to refuse to return for the latter not to get a second round). But renewing shows that have used up all their source material, like “Big Little Lies” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” have become far more the rule. “Barry,” HBO’s other big series wrap-up on Sunday, certainly should have ended much sooner. (Like CNN, HBO is a part of Warner Bros. Discovery.)
Part of the reason studios keep going back to the same well over and over is that, in a diversified entertainment landscape, they fear that a title no one recognizes won’t get watched. That’s how we’ve ended up in a world where ABC is serving up a 20th season of “Grey’s Anatomy” (sans Meredith Grey) and AMC has several “The Walking Dead” spinoffs that will probably be dead shows walking.
In contrast, “Succession,” a perfect series for the Trump era, has always had its finger on the pulse of the times. The protagonists, the Roy family, are rich people you love to hate, their media company a Fox News parody pushing a false reality while their behaviors and attitudes towards those below them on the food chain are shockingly, deliciously abhorrent.
Though largely based on the right-wing media dynasty headed by Rupert Murdoch, the Roy family also matched up with the Trumps themselves. The paterfamilias Logan (Brian Cox) has two failsons, Kendall and Roman (Jeremy Strong and Kieran Culkin), and a continuously undermined daughter, Shiv (Sarah Snook), whose marriage was as much about her husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) getting into the patriarch’s inner circle as it was a love match. The pushed-out eldest son Connor (Alan Ruck) even ran for president to soothe his ego and to impress a father who would never care.
However, events overtook “Succession.” The world changed as the 2020 pandemic upended filming for Season 3. By the time the series returned in 2021, Joe Biden was president, and the country had seen what allowing a network like Fox News to broadcast an alternate reality had wrought. The years of political cynicism had given way to sincerity, and critics began asking how much longer “Succession” could continue without anyone ever succeeding.
Even so, it was a shock when series creator Jesse Armstrong announced in February that the forthcoming Season 4 would be the final one, and even more of one when — despite the show’s title clearly indicating an ending where Logan exits and someone succeeds him — the cruel bastard dropped dead in an airplane lavatory in the final season’s third episode.
As “Succession” debuted its final installments, dropping episode after episode of award-worthy performances in brilliantly written and directed scenes, it was almost unfathomable that Armstrong would bring back the show in some form at HBO’s behest. Even HBO head Casey Bloys admits a sequel doesn’t “seem like a natural thing.”
However, one only need look around the landscape to see that Armstrong’s decision to call time on “Succession” is the smart one. Take Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso,” which helped define the new earnestness in 2020 but has already outstayed its welcome. The series began as a comedy with a clearly defined three-season arc of 10 half-hour episodes per year. However, the pressure of being the hit that put the nascent streaming service on the map quickly took its toll.
Now episodes run longer than some traditional dramas and Season 3 is merely the end of “this story that we wanted to tell,” according to series creator Jason Sudeikis. The rewrites have caused massive delays in filming and robbed the overall story of its focus.
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“Ted Lasso” isn’t the only show that feels like it’s not being allowed to go gently into that good night. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” may have ended, but it’s already got “House of the Dragon” – a series that feels like a retread without the shock value – and forthcoming “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Knight,” a convoluted title if there ever was one.
And it turns out eight movies weren’t enough for Harry Potter. The books are being rebooted, not as a spinoff or a new story, but the same one from just over a decade ago now stretched to fill 10 seasons.
Poor “Yellowstone,” hailed for being fresh in 2018 when Paramount released it, is already up to its fifth spinoff. And “Doctor Who” can’t settle for various runs across 60 years; it now will be spawning multiple versions as it travels to Disney+, home of a cornucopia of “Star Wars” shows either streaming or in development and about the same amount of Marvel shows as hours in a day.
Ending “Succession” at a moment when every episode is better than the last feels like a bold move studios should appreciate: With the end in sight, “Succession” has successfully turned its final run of episodes into an event. Of course, the series still has to stick the landing on Sunday night — but it’s hard to imagine “Succession” can lose now, even if the Roy children probably will.