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opinion

Succession is a drama series that explores themes of power politics and family through the eyes of an aging, uber-wealthy media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his four grown children.HBO / Crave

I see that the Toronto International Film Festival is still going on. Toronto’s King streetcar moves in a straight line again, though, because the first TIFF weekend is over. Phew.

But you’ll see 11 black SUVs with tinted windows parked in a line on the street. Why? Because of TIFF. Men in dark suits, wearing dark glasses, stand around looking menacing. Security guys and drivers, one assumes. Take a photo, ask anyone what’s going on and they’d say it looks like El Commandante is enjoying lunch after the coup d’état while his henchmen wait outside. It’s a cinema trope.

Anyway, there is a TV element to TIFF. According to its website, the TV content is there because, “The best and brightest are turning to television to produce original, compelling cinematic content.” Well, no. The “cinematic” thing is redundant. This brings me to my point.

Succession (Sundays, Crave/HBO in Canada and Crave on-demand) has become particularly brilliant precisely because it is not in the least bit cinematic. It’s must-see, gripping and sometimes horrifying because it often keeps its characters in one enclosed place or another. It typifies what’s great about a lot of TV now simply because it avoids so much that cinema does.

When it first arrived in 2018, the series about the Roy family, a fictional, mega-rich American global-media clan, didn’t get the attention it deserved. In part that’s because it seemed to be part of an odd trend – along with Billions, and the FX mini-series Trust (about the Getty family) plus a network revival of Dynasty, it looked as though it was merely part of a faddish fascination with the very, very rich for our entertainment.

It isn’t that and it has become vastly superior to the others it was connected with in TV-trend pieces. Its strength is its theatrical quality. Several episodes in its first season, and the current one, have simply put the central characters in a confining space and allowed them to plot, bicker, argue and attempt to outwit and backstab each other. After each episode, it is a bit disturbing to realize that among these wonderfully drawn characters, there’s nobody to root for.

Executive producer Adam McKay, who also directed multiple episodes, has said this series is about “dynastic congealed wealth.” And that’s true, but the “congealed” part may explain why Succession was slow to get a grip on viewers. In its first season, you could wonder, at first, why we were being asked to gaze at Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the owner of a vast media empire and pay attention to his children and their spouses. Each was abhorrently maladjusted.

Then, in that first season, Logan was hospitalized and in a coma. The central force of it seemed to be put aside. But with each episode, the battle to succeed him became more palpably intense. The intricacy of each family member’s faults of ego and self-absorption – not to mention their lack of empathy for any other living person – was revealed with remarkable precision. And what became noticeable was how episodes were anchored in set-piece situations. Often in a hospital waiting room or a boardroom. It was, amazingly, just people talking, that least cinematic of dramatic manoeuvres.

This season, Logan is in full throttle as the Lear-like patriarch. He’s itching to buy a rival and more liberal-skewing media conglomerate. (This isn’t really a spoiler, there’s a lot going on.) And he’s willing to do anything to get it, including the repeated humiliation of his children.

One episode was set almost entirely at a corporate retreat. After dinner, Logan commands his family to take part in a game to test their loyalty and determine if someone has talked to a biographer trying to dig up dirt on him. It is an act of torture, this game, and unspeakably cruel. And yet, you watch it as a compelling black comedy and are made to grasp that so often when it’s brilliant Succession is claustrophobic. One little room is an everywhere, as the poet said.

Another episode this season had this plot line – the Roys must spend a weekend with the Pierce family, owners of that other media empire, so that the Pierces can assess the moral fibre of the would-be buyers of their company. In another series, this twist might be implausible. But here it is to be relished and offers further study of these appalling people attempting to camouflage their awfulness in a restricted setting.

If you’ve watched it, you will know how well the characters are sharply defined. But beyond the characters and their repulsive qualities, what marks Succession is its propensity for the theatrical, not the cinematic. It would never work as a movie.

No, I haven’t seen any movies at TIFF. I‘m only kidding about it being annoying. It’s just that some great TV is thriving without being cinematic, thanks very much.