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Brian Cox in season 4 of the HBO hit Succession.David M. Russell/HBO

Late in the Season 4 premiere of Succession, Logan Roy, the Rupert Murdoch-esque patriarch of a global media empire played with bellicose glee by Brian Cox, yells out a line that could double as the series’ maxim: “I’m not being horrible! I’m being fun!”

Ever since the HBO series debuted in 2018 – it returns for a fourth and final season starting Sunday night – the acidic comedy has excelled in turning awful people doing horrendous things into awfully funny, horrendously entertaining viewing. This is a show that has nudged audiences’ sympathies if not toward then certainly adjacent to characters who are involved in drug abuse, hit-and-runs, corporate cover-ups and political machinations that would make Donald Trump’s skin crawl. The dirtier the Roy family’s hands become, the more eager we are to lick their muddy little fingers clean.

Along the way, our avariciousness for these greedy titans of industry – from Logan’s fail-son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) to ne’er-do-well Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) – has helped propel a fascinating little peak-TV narrative. In an era in which fabulously high-concept, celebrity-laden shows come and go with barely a whisper or eyebrow-raise – I’m still surprised that we’re not all talking about how Harrison Ford is starring in not one but two excellent shows right now, or that there is a new series out there with Meryl Streep playing a futuristic whaleSuccession, a show with relatively little star power and an affinity for mergers and acquisition terminology fit for a Bloomberg terminal, has cut through the pop-cultural noise to become that rarest of small-screen phenomenon: appointment viewing.

Perhaps creator Jesse Armstrong’s show can chalk up its zeitgeist-capturing success due to, well, its obsession with the zeitgeist. If North American media love one thing above all else, it is North American media. Inevitably, a series about the messy intersection of news, politics, power, technology and money would itself spawn a mainstream media cottage industry of profiles and essays and evaluations (such as, ahem, this very column). If Succession is going to analyze its source material, then its source material is going to analyze it right back, with glee. But beneath Armstrong’s slick, perhaps cynically savvy packaging, there lies a series that is constructed with that one, big missing link of contemporary television: wit.

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Nicholas Braun and Matthew Macfadyen in Succession.Macall B. Polay/HBO

While many of Succession’s one-liners – volleyed punch lines that hit you in the head and the gut – cannot be repeated in a family newspaper (except, maybe, one of the newspapers owned by Logan Roy), they are engineered with a fiery precision that is simply unmatched by the writers-room soldiers fighting today’s streaming wars. Succession is a show without physical violence, but one drenched in boardroom blood. Characters are cut down by the foul barbs of Logan and his brood before being stitched up and sent back into the fray to lob their own verbal firebombs. Trying to keep track of just who comes out on top in the game of insults isn’t the point, either. It is best to just let the triple-tongued tirades wash over you, until you’re drowning in the decadent dirt, pleased as a pig.

The dialogue swerves and tilts depending on which character is commanding the scene. It is stuttering and staccato when it’s the youngest son Roman (Kieran Culkin), icily curt and to the point when it’s daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook), faux-intellectualized when it’s aspiring politician Connor (Alan Ruck). But back-and-forths alone cannot prop up a series, which is where Succession’s casting genius comes into play, having now minted a mini-empire of magazine cover stars (were there any magazines left to cover them).

While Strong’s devotion to his craft has made him an insta-meme, it has also made his performance as Kendall a hypnotizing act of control and confidence. Braun stutters and sputters with the best of them. Cox, arguably the biggest name prior to the series’ launch, has consistently reinforced his lion-in-the-winter dominance. Even bit-turned-supporting players like J. Smith Cameron, so needle-point sharp as corporate consigliere Gerri, has become something of a character-actor superstar. And I will now watch absolutely anything featuring Matthew Macfadyen, who has turned smoothly slimy Roy hanger-on Tom into an indelible creation that simply cannot be divorced from the actor playing him.

All of which underlines just how crushing it is that Succession’s fourth season is also its last. And unlike previous go-rounds, it is impossible to predict just where things will land for the Roys (mostly because HBO has given the show’s target audience – journalists – advance access to only the first four episodes of the new season, unlike previous years in which we’d get all but the season finale).

Without spoiling anything, Sunday night’s season premiere picks up essentially where the jaw-smacking Season 3 finale left off: Logan on one side of the corporate divide, three-fourths of his kids on the other. Over the course of the hour – which picks up significant speed and urgency at its midway point – alliances are formed, dissolved, reverse-engineered and capped with, naturally, a hearty swig of voluble vulgarity.

But as Logan himself might say, it’s not where things end up in this story so much as who wins. In that case, there’s a very good bet to be made that it will be Succession’s devoted audience. Curse Armstrong and Co. for calling it quits, but bless them for going out on what seems to be a middle-finger-worthy high.

The new season of Succession premieres March 26 at 9 p.m. EST on HBO/Crave, with news episodes weekly.

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