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When a great show like ‘Succession’ gives us such vivid characters, now you’re talking

Brian Cox (onscreen) and Jeremy Strong, as Logan and Kendall Roy, in "Succession."David M. Russell

This week, as the “Succession” series finale approaches on Sunday night, I can’t stop talking about Logan Roy.

But I never had much to say about J.R. Ewing, the prime mover and manipulator of the original “Dallas,” which ran from 1978 to 1991. He was a scoundrel, and the reasons he did what he did — involving blackmail, often, or bribery — were always easy to figure out. Generally, the psychological and emotional motivations in the writing didn’t go especially deep. There may have been a lot to say to other fans about what our cowboy-hatted bully did; but much less about why.


I’m not trying to slag off the classic character who helped define the 1980s as a decade famous for greed and excess. It was a show, like most made before the 2000s, that was straightforward and self-explanatory and, as such, entertaining. J.R. was Logan Roy back when millions — and not billions — were the barometer of wealth in America. Antiheroes were basically baddies, and it wasn’t our job to get to the bottom of their psychoses and neuroses, a staff of armchair shrinks with our remote controls in hand.

Now, though, when it comes to the best-written shows such as “Succession,” we are all sitting in Lucy’s psychiatry booth and offering our five-cents’ worth on the lead players. There are long conversations to be had about every member of the Roy family — the position of each child in the litter, the particular wounds they’ve suffered, and the origins of Logan’s damaged psyche. The Roy generational trauma is a whole deal in itself — that Logan blamed himself for the polio that killed his sister. That kind of profound self-recrimination — especially coupled with Logan’s refusal to discuss it — surely trickles down.

The analytical conversation has become part of the full-service TV experience, circa 2023, not only when it comes to “Succession,” but certainly very much so when it comes to “Succession.” It’s a testament to how much TV writing has improved across the decades, that we can discuss the likes of Logan Roy, Don Draper, Elizabeth Jennings, and, yes, even comedic characters such as Ted Lasso, almost as if they were real people. Draper acting out after growing up in a brothel, Jennings trading her humanity for a cause, Lasso running from his father’s suicide with a distracted smile — they’re living and breathing souls.


They aren’t of course; this TV critic hasn’t lost all his marbles, not yet. But the characters have been invested with enough inner life and history to sometimes seem so. Oddly, these TV-character conversations can get more detailed and diagnostic than when I’m talking about friends and family — you know, real live people. Kendall’s Freudian daddy issues, Roman’s entitlement complex, Shiv’s over-adaptiveness, Connor’s ego thirst, they’re all fodder for sustained scrutiny. Especially since Logan’s death — but really, for the entire length of the series — fans have been debating which child should be anointed Waystar Royco CEO, picking through each one’s attributes armed with an arsenal of specifics — just like we did at the end of “Game of Thrones,” as we bet on who’d take the Iron Throne. We know a world of information about the Roys, even more than we do about, say, the Murdochs or any other real power clan.


Most of the TV characters we dissect so intensively these days are troubled, landing more on the antihero (and, although there are fewer on TV, the antiheroine) end of the moral spectrum. The devils tend to be more interesting than the angels, often because there’s so much anguish and damage embedded in their backstories, so much to unpack. That’s one reason “Succession” engenders endless chatter; they’re all antiheroes, mired in lives of bad behavior, giant knots to be untied by the willing and observant. Sure, heroes can be engaging, but notice how all those superhero franchises have emphasized their saviors’ complex backstories in recent decades, to make them less bland, more engaging to audiences.

The analytic conversations began in earnest with “The Sopranos,” with writing that went deeper than previous TV shows, thanks to the freedoms of cable and a new understanding that viewers did not require uplift. Certainly the intelligent likes of “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” had set the stage, but “The Sopranos” dug in, telling its story through a psychological lens as we sat with Tony during his therapy with Dr. Melfi. Couple that with the growth of the Internet, and the advent of recaps and comment sections, and you’ve got plenty of analytic conversation in constant circulation. All fans have a voice and a point of view now, the know-it-alls, the normies, the honest, and, of course, the trolls.

The group processing of TV characters is contingent on a weekly rollout, so that viewers are all on the same page and feel free to talk. With binge series, it’s harder to share the details of the story without stumbling into spoilers. Siloed in our own virtual worlds, riveted by our phones, people are nonetheless starved for contact and exchange, and shows like “Succession” are here for them.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him @MatthewGilbert.