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Why HBO’s Succession will be the new Game of Thrones

The darkly funny family drama has plenty in common with Game of Thrones without feeling like an exact copy.

Game of Thrones, Succession
Will Brian Cox take Peter Dinklage’s place as perpetual Emmy winner? Only time will tell.
HBO

With Game of Thrones over, one big question hangs over the TV industry, TV fans, and people who more casually enjoy water-cooler shows: Will there ever be another show like this?

I answered this question before the final season of Game of Thrones began with a resounding “yes,” because there’s always another huge TV show. And my colleague Peter Kafka explained some of the reasons there will be another event show at this level. It might take a while, but there will be another Game of Thrones.

But what will it be? That’s a trickier question to answer, and it’s one I’ve been turning over in my head ever since the show’s seventh season ended. And though there are many contenders out there, there isn’t one clear and obvious favorite to take the crown.

Then again, when Game of Thrones started up, it wasn’t a clear and obvious favorite to slide in and steal the crowns of Mad Men and Breaking Bad (the biggest, buzziest TV shows of that era), despite the fact that it eventually surpassed both of those series in popularity. So not being a clear and obvious favorite isn’t necessarily a handicap.

But before I give you my prediction for the Next Big TV Show, let’s take a look at all of the things it probably won’t be.

Three categories the Next Big TV Show probably won’t fall into

Stranger Things
Sorry, Stranger Things kids.
Netflix

Let’s start with a caveat: The next big show isn’t likely to be the literal biggest hit on TV. Even Game of Thrones, which was massively watched, saw lower viewership for its series finale than the series finale of The Big Bang Theory a few nights earlier.

(HBO released a number showing Game of Thrones edging out Big Bang, but that number included a bunch of streaming views that don’t have independent verification outside of HBO. I have no reason to doubt that number, but have trouble calling it “official.” And even if it is, the point remains: Just as many people watched Big Bang as Game of Thrones, but you heard a whole lot more about one than the other.)

What the “next big show” is will have almost nothing to do with actual viewership, in fact. It will be far more about some strange, hard-to-define combination of hardcore fandom, industry acclaim, and media buzz.

But these three things feed each other. The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t really start to break out for us here at Vox, for instance, until it had won a bunch of Emmys, and we wrote more and more about Stranger Things after its first season, because people clearly were responding to what we had published. Similarly, it’s hard to deny that both industry types and TV fans got on board the Mad Men train after the media started hyping it to high heaven.

So what we’re talking about here is a weird alchemy, one that is almost intentionally hard to define. But we can try. And we can start by listing three categories that the next big thing probably won’t fall into, simply due to how those categories isolate one of the audiences I just mentioned.

It probably won’t be a streaming show (and especially not one that debuts all of its episodes at once): In summer 2016, the smart bet on the next big thing was probably on Stranger Things, Netflix’s tale of kids encountering the unknown in a small town. And to be sure, that’s been a sizable hit. But season two came and went as a cultural phenomenon much more quickly, and buzz for the upcoming season three has tapered off.

Blame the fact that all of its episodes drop at once, which means that the time between seasons becomes a desert. It might seem like a minor distinction, but even the six weeks it took for Game of Thrones’ final season to unfold over gives lots of time for discussion to reach a fever pitch. The way we talk about Netflix shows is just different, particularly after the first season (when slow discovery of a show can create the feeling of a burgeoning word-of-mouth hit), which makes it hard for them to truly break through with the media in the way a big TV show usually does.

In fact, I think even streaming shows that drop weekly are at a subtle disadvantage. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale has some of the earmarks of becoming a big TV hit (if not a Game of Thrones-level one), but it really does feel like the phenomenon of a huge TV hit really requires an initial airing where everybody is watching at the same time. In other words, the Big TV Show has to feel a little like a live sporting event, and a streaming show can never quite capture that feeling.

It probably won’t be a comedy: I toyed with suggesting The Good Place as the next big thing. Interest in the show has steadily grown over its first three seasons, and its viewership numbers have held remarkably steady (while there are also hints it’s way bigger on Netflix than on NBC — often a good sign for a show that’s about to break out).

And in the ’80s and ’90s, the big TV show was often a Seinfeld or a Cheers — a big hit sitcom that sucked viewers in with a skewed perspective on the world or relationship melodrama. But a shift toward privileging dramas as the one show everybody’s talking about started in the mid-’90s, roughly paralleling the genre’s increasing comfort with serialization.

Comedies, obviously, are more serialized than ever before. The Good Place is highly serialized. But my guess is that TV audiences are too conditioned to think of “the big show” as something that’s hour-long and full of dark plot twists at this point to anoint a comedy “the one show everybody has to watch,” even though TV half-hours are generally stronger than TV hours right now.

It probably won’t be a show that hasn’t debuted yet: Most of the time, the next big show is on the air at the same time as the last or current big show. While one big show is airing, another, smaller one gains momentum with audiences, critics, and the industry, because it becomes a kind of plucky also-ran. By the time the former big show goes off the air, the new big show is primed to become a monster hit.

So for as much as I want to believe HBO’s Watchmen or Netflix’s The Witcher might have what it takes to rocket into the TV sky as quickly as possible, it’s usually a slow build toward becoming the next big show instead of something that happens right out of the gates. (That scenario usually ends up with a show collapsing very quickly — see: Heroes or Glee.) Thus, the odds are good that whatever is going to be next is already on the air right now.

(A necessary caveat: It is entirely possible the “next big show” could be the 2020 presidential election, and by the time that’s over, something that’s just about to debut will have garnered the momentum to take Game of Thrones’ place. We’ll all certainly be talking about the election enough!)

So — with all of that said, I do have a prediction for the next Game of Thrones, and it’s probably not what you’d expect.

If it has a second season as good as or better than its first, HBO’s Succession seems likely to become our next TV obsession

Succession
If you’re not on board the Succession train yet, now is the time to start.
HBO

Most predictions of “the next big show” tend to look at series that resemble the last big show. So in this case, we might look to Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings adaptation and suggest the Game of Thrones magic will be recaptured there. Similarly, HBO is clearly betting at least a little bit on Westworld, which inherits Game of Thrones’ late spring premiere and timeslot next year. Both of these genre series have numerous obvious similarities to Game of Thrones.

But reconsider the shows Game of Thrones replaced — Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Neither series has many superficial similarities to Game of Thrones. But if you look a little deeper, both have elements in common with Game of Thrones that may suggest why each led to the other. Breaking Bad’s willingness to plot a psychologically rich portrayal of one man’s descent into darkness against a pulp fiction background, for instance, has plenty in common with how Game of Thrones tells stories, while Mad Men also offered an alternate world to get lost in.

This is why I submit that HBO’s Succession — a twisted and incredibly funny family drama about a clan of media moguls who are jostling for position to take over the family empire — has what it takes to fill Game of Thrones’ shoes. For one thing, it’s already a show plenty of people are deeply obsessed with (like Karen Han, formerly of Vox and now of our sister site, Polygon). For another, it has plenty in common with Game of Thrones (this is another battle for a different throne, with twisted family dynamics to rival those of Westeros), while not feeling too similar to it.

What’s more, the series’ portrayal of the absurd, obscene divide between those with wealth and those without feels incredibly timely in 2019, in the same way that Game of Thrones’ existential battle against a bunch of ice-cold invaders who were trying to get past a giant wall could stand in for whatever political problem you wanted them to. Succession isn’t quite apolitical — it clearly thinks being able to accumulate this level of wealth is absurd — but it’s not above indulging in that wealth just a little bit, too.

In fact, if Succession takes the crown, it might be in line with some earlier dramas that became big hits in the ’80s: Dallas and Dynasty. Those shows started out feinting toward being critiques of American excess, but they were all too happy to become lolls in a giant money pit.

So far, Succession seems sharper and more acidic, less likely to bring in Joan Collins (or whoever her 2019 equivalent would be) just to goose the drama. But my larger point — that the divide between haves and have-nots can make for a hit TV show that appeals to just about everybody — remains.

Now, the biggest obstacle standing in Succession’s way is that its second season (debuting in August) has to be fantastic to take off in the way I think it could. But even there, the show is promising. It’s made by experienced TV hands (Jesse Armstrong of Peep Show fame), and its first season very much displayed a learning curve that was going in the right direction. The series could fall flat on its face, but I’m betting it won’t.

I’m also betting that when it does, you’re going to start having friends and family and coworkers ask you, “Hey, have you heard of this show on HBO? It’s about a rich family? Accession? Procession?”

And because you’re in the know, you can get caught up on the one season that currently exists and be ready to answer them with a confident smile. “Succession,” you’ll say. “You just heard about it? Don’t you love Cousin Greg?”

Because what good is a big hit TV show if you can’t be there on the ground floor, smiling just a little smugly about how you knew about it from the first?

Succession is on HBO’s streaming platforms. Season two debuts in August. Don’t you want to be able to sound cooler than your friends?

Correction: Joan Collins joined the cast of Dynasty, not Joan Crawford (who was dead by the time Dynasty debuted).