In a 2019 interview with Vulture, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody talked about a TV show she loves: Succession. “I’m totally going to get shit on for this,” she said, “but don’t you think some of the writing on Succession is a little reminiscent of the writing I got dragged for early in my career? … People thought it was so glib and obnoxious when I did it, and now people are enjoying it.”
The years following her Oscar-winning debut, the 2007 teen pregnancy dramedy Juno, saw a sharp backlash to Cody and her signature style. Much of the scorn contained obvious sexism targeting her appearance and former work as a stripper. But her writing style, too, was widely criticized. When Juno star Elliot Page hosted Saturday Night Live, his monologue was interrupted by Andy Samberg, who took the stage as Cody. “What’s your dental damage, Kermit the Blog?” Samberg demanded, mocking the mixture of off-beat jabs, pop-culture references, and puns that often marked Cody’s early writing. Juno’s “honest to blog” became infamous; similarly unforgettable was the line, referring to Juno’s positive pregnancy test and delivered by Rainn Wilson, “That ain’t no Etch-a-Sketch, this is one doodle that can’t be undid, homeskillet.”
Succession, which tells the story of power-jockeying and backstabbing within the fictional Roy media dynasty, has stylistic forebears that include some of TV’s most beloved shows, including the BBC’s The Thick of It, on which Succession creator Jesse Armstrong worked as a writer, and The Wire, with its famous five-minutes of “fuck.” But its writing style has less universally beloved antecedents as well. On Succession, the tweeness is dialed down, and the profanity is amped all the way up — but the resemblances to Cody’s can be strong. The show also contains echoes of Joss Whedon’s indulgences, which have also attracted backlash. Seeing a writing style that’s otherwise regarded as dated and is now largely unbeloved—but not exactly old enough that it’s due for a comeback—resurface on one of TV’s most acclaimed series feels surprising.
Cody told Vulture that her “favorite line in the world” was Succession’s, “You can’t make a Tomlette without breaking some Gregs.” The quip has breakfast-pun echoes of Juno’s “Your eggo is preggo,” and other Cody-like lines also abound. On Succession, bad news threatens to make patriarch Logan Roy “shit his pop tarts,” and a crisis is “the full Baskin Robbins—31 flavors of fuck.”
Writing for Vice, Gita Jackson penned one of the definitive analyses of “Whedonspeak” in an article examining its use in Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop. Whedonspeak is verbose, cutesy, and often cheekily imprecise. “Sentences trail off as [characters] struggle to articulate themselves,” they wrote. “They say “thing” or “thingy” or “stuff” in place of more descriptive terms. Often these characters metatextually comment on their surroundings or the environments they’re in, usually in a sarcastic or snarky way.” As examples of Whedonspeak’s cultural creep, Jackson cites writing like,“This is my timey-wimey detector. It goes ding when there’s stuff,” from Doctor Who.
In earlier years, Whedonspeak and Cody-isms were often deployed by characters the audience was supposed to be endeared to, and presented as evidence of their smarts and singularity. But on Succession, the callow, power-hungry Roys speak this way precisely because they are glib and obnoxious.
Plenty of lines from Succession could be considered Whedonspeak, particularly those delivered by Kieran Culkin’s Roman Roy, the most jocular member of the clan. “I’m no hero, parentheses, I’m an incredible hero,” he boasts. He tells a corporate rival, “You’re like a peppy fun-gun set to MILF, with a Lean-In, womany branding thing that works with the Fit Bit moron whatever people,” and in a moment of seriousness asks, “Look, if we come through this, is there a thing where we like, talk to each other about stuff?”
This mode is used to its strongest effect in dialogue delivered by the hapless Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), who has referred to himself as “Little Lord Fuckleroy” at least three times over the course of the show. Kendall sometimes takes a beat afterward to allow others to really appreciate a bon mot and leans on dubious feats of verbal dexterity as part of his broader desperation for approval. He also has a range of other verbal styles, from his always hilarious start-up founder-like pitch mode (“Detoxify our brand, and we can go supersonic”) to stuttering near-silence during face-offs with his father Logan.
Other characterizations are less well-served by Whedon-Cody interludes. Roman often blankets his surroundings with vulgarities like a lawn sprinkler, with fewer of the context-specific, strategic changes that Kendall deploys. Roy daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook) slips into and out of the style without developing a voice as singular as Roman or Kendall’s. Still, she’ll go toe-to-toe when the nonces start flying:
Roman: Why are you making fucky-eyes at me?
Shiv: I’m not making fucky-eyes at you.
Roman: Yeah you are, you’re making fucky-eyes.
One problem with this style is that, when liberally deployed, everyone begins sounding very similar. Even within families, voices are often idiosyncratic. But when, in negotiating a deal with his sister, Connor says, “I would like some suck suck on my dicky dick,” he could just as well be Kendall or Roman.
Fan favorite Cousin Greg is one of the few who almost never speaks in this style, and instead, his lines are marked by a befuddled combination of uneasy formality and creaky archaisms. His recent musings on the hard-drinking 1960s—“Different times, indeed. Better times? Not for all”—are very funny, and could only have been spoken by Greg. Similarly, the Whedonspeak tends to drop out at the show’s very best moments, even when humor does not. When Roman accidentally sends a dick pick to his father at the end of season three’s penultimate episode, his blanching face and Logan’s horrified, “Are you a sicko?” offer more effective humor than most punderdome contortions.
Like everything else about Succession, the show’s verbal calisthenics are deeply intentional and considered, and the series itself sometimes pokes fun at them. When, during one of their regular tit-for-tats, Kendall tells his corporate challenger Stewy, “I will come to you at night with a razor blade, and I will cut your,” Stewy interrupts, a bit wearily, “—dick off, and then push it up your cunt until poo poo pops out of my nose hole. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything!”
The wince-inducing precocity is very much the point. As the Atlantic put it, “These people are trying to sound smart, sophisticated, and ruthless. They think they live in an Aaron Sorkin TV show or a David Mamet play.” Their failure to achieve this effect mirrors the Roys’ other failures, their failures to seize power and to earn their father’s unambiguous respect. But acknowledging that something is bad doesn’t in itself make the thing any better. Writing of trends in contemporary novels for the New Yorker, Katy Waldman dubbed the “the implicit, and sometimes explicit, idea that professing awareness of a fault absolves you of that fault” the “reflexivity trap.” In television, I think of it as awareness laundering—taking tarnished old habits and washing them clean with a knowing wink.
The show’s dedication to an authentically super-rich but studiously un-glamorized aesthetic has been well documented. “You feel a bit of an emptiness,” production designer Stephen Carter told the Ringer last month. “Hopefully that echoes the moral state where this family finds itself.” Just as the show doesn’t often linger on beautiful costumes or interiors, it resists giving its characters beautiful language. They might not deserve to have it, but what about the audience? The Roys are the ones being flogged, but lines like, “Hey libtard, how do you like spelunking in the elephant’s asshole?” can feel a bit like the whip swinging back around to hit us.
For a show that on its surface delights in boundary-pushing obscenity, Succession has a moralizing undercurrent. Its characters are very rarely allowed victories, or joy, or beauty. They are bad people, and for that they are duly and endlessly humiliated, leaving much of the third season spinning its wheels, and creating little room for the sorts of varied interpretations that can emerge when a show about terrible people offers the potential to be read at more than one angle. It is novel and likely overdue to see the very wealthy depicted in a manner in which almost nothing about them, right down to the words they use, is framed as being aspirational. And perhaps whatever ways in which this flattens the work and hobbles its momentum is outweighed by the sheer worthiness of this approach. But, as Slate Money Podcast co-host Emily Peck tweeted, “Lately I’m thinking this message actually serves the rich.”
“At first cut, you think the show’s innovative because it’s not glamorizing wealth, which a lot of other shows about the rich tend to do,” Peck later told me. “And then I thought, wait a second. If the rich can convince us that being rich makes you miserable, then it kind of gives them some kind of pass, right?”
“I’m not suggesting that the writers of Succession are doing that,” she added, “but I feel that can be an unintended consequence.” As their humiliations mount and the pleasures their riches yield are obscured by the show’s punishing aesthetic, the Roys and their milieu only become more sympathetic. Maybe the whip is swinging back at us in more ways than one.