One of the best ways a TV show can stand out from the pack is by developing a vocabulary and cadence that is completely of its own. “Seinfeld” has turned long, rambling conversations about nothing into an art form. “Gilmore Girls” made viewers struggle to keep up with the puns of the protagonists. And every Aaron Sorkin show has the signature big talk and almost musically precise readings that made “The West Wing” a pioneering force in prestige TV.
Now, in an age where too many shows and movies have the same taut, heavy pop culture sarcasm leaving their characters’ lips, there’s “Succession.” Created by Jesse Armstrong, HBO’s juggernaut series about power games from media mogul Roy’s family bears much of the same DNA as the British writer’s previous work on series like “Peep Show” and “The Thick of It.” The latter series, in particular, has the same kind of colorful and vicious insults that have become the bread and butter of the “Succession” script.
But the oral style of the series distinguishes itself from Armstrong’s other shows in several key ways. The first, and most obvious, is that the characters are primarily American instead of British: giving them a completely different tool set of phrases and references to verbally tear each other down. Suffice it to say that Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) screaming to masturbate wouldn’t sound the same if he were talking about “wanking.” Even more vital to the “Succession” dialogue is the way it shapes the corporate language and corporate jargon essential to its setting of boardrooms and corporate retreats to fit the show’s central figures, resulting in a universe where no two exist. figures that have the same way with words.
The characters in “Succession” have a knack for talking a lot of nonsense that still communicates everything about who they are. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) speaks in stuttering buzzwords and tortured metaphors that only underscore his inability to become the killer he thinks he should be. Roman’s foul-mouthed wit, and the way Culkin stumbles and catches himself cursing and punchlines, conveys the armor he uses to hide his vulnerabilities as the youngest. Shiv (Sarah Snook) has a snooty, scornful stable of applause, but it’s often reduced to verbal gaffes and self-abasement when she really matters. Eccentric Connor (Alan Ruck) is slower-talking and less flippant than his younger siblings, with a penchant for off-topic ramblings that mark him out as the obvious black sheep of the family.
Their father, the terse and terrifying Logan (Brian Cox), has his own iconic “Fuck you!” and the ability to silence his motorized-mouthed children with a single, brutally constructed sentence. Tom (Matthew MacFayden) butting Midwestern kid uses eloquent, pompous verbiage as rope to aid in his social climbing, while his sidekick cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) can barely form a complete sentence in front of the universally recognized ensemble wittier. Even the characters on the sidelines of the action have their own style of speaking: Logan’s cold wife Marcia (Hiam Abass) has her passionately poetic critiques, Connor’s girlfriend Willa (Justine Lupe) is quiet but biting, and the general counsel Gerri (J. . Smith Cameron) has a more professional demeanor but a crackling bottom line with no bullshit – which sets them all apart from each other.
The result is a very entertaining show; full of wild disses and bizarre twists of the English language that make it one of the most memorable shows on the air. But beyond the insults, some of the show’s most cutting quotes come from when characters drop their pretensions and say what they really mean to each other. In those rare moments of vulnerability, the dialogue still sings, with simple sentences that convey the pain, anger, and grief that shaped these abused children into the tragicomic fails they are as adults.
In honor of the ongoing fourth and final season of “Succession,” here’s a list of some of the best insults, jokes, and devastating admissions the series has given us over 30 episodes and counting. The entries are listed in no particular order and were chosen based on a mix of memorability, how well the joke works in the show, and what it conveys about the person speaking it.
(Editor’s note: This list will be updated continuously throughout “Succession” Season 4.)