the camerawork of carnage on succession.
The real star among the many excellent aspects of Succession is the camerawork. Shaky handheld shots, constant zooms in and out, swooping pans, weird angles—they combine to create a delirious, immersive, almost nauseating aesthetic.
At first, it feels like the camera work is voyeuristic, making the viewer feel as though they are awkwardly not where they are supposed to be, eavesdropping on intimate, nasty family business (and nasty business business too). Yet the more I watch the show, the more the camerawork is not voyeuristic. It is instead oddly participatory. The camera almost makes the viewer another family member in this very dysfunctional family, a part of its closed fictional world.
That world envelops us, oddly, by appropriating the camerawork of the documentary film. Maybe there is a bit of cinéma vérité or Dogme 95 in the camerawork of Succession. More accurately, one might imagine the show as a kind of mock-reality television show. Or even a mock-mock reality television show such. Indeed, when I watch Succession, I often think of The Office, particularly the original British version. That was also a satirical show with a heart for the absurd tragedies of deeply flawed characters. To be sure, its tone was ultimately quite different. It was more overtly a comedy, one that ultimately played it sweet below its critique, but it lingers in the background of Succession‘s approach. One might say Succession succeeds The Office. It set the stage—or rather, prepared the lens—for this strange new approach to filming a fictional show as if it were reality, but not quite.
The Office‘s faux-reality show camerawork created a feeling of brutal self-awareness and awkwardness, in which fictional characters became infinitely more fake by pretending to be real for the camera. Here was a new language of painful exposure. The fake reality show brought the falseness of the genre into the glaring spotlight. Now on Succession, we have a fictional show that has folded in the camerawork of the fake reality-show farce into a kind of Billions, or maybe better said Sopranos, drama. It becomes a new sort of hybrid form of prestige TV (or is it film?) in which we don’t quite know where we are. The disorientation is the point, and it reinforces the writing and acting, which are highly attuned to David Brent levels of self-delusion.
Succession is a show always on the brink of breakdown. The camera signals a knowing wink. It is recognizable as the reality show check-in with the audience. On The Office, this gave some relief. Succession cuts off the possibility, turns up the pressure. We are not in a reality show anymore. We are not even in a faux-reality show anymore. We are in a fully fictional world, yet the camera keeps proposing that it is real. Or maybe it is a fully real world and we keep being reminded that it is fake. Who knows? That is part of the point.
Most of all, the use of reality television show camerawork accentuates the dreamy lack of reality. One thinks of similar approaches on other shows. Not just The Office, but also Arrested Development, for instance. Only, now, one might say that Marx’s famous quip is reversed. While on The Office, we first experienced farce, on Succession, we now experience tragedy.
And yet the camerawork keeps forcing the questions: What is going on here? Who are these rich people? Why are we getting so uncomfortably close to them? Why do I care at all about these awful characters?
The unforgiving intensity of Succession‘s camerawork and overall mood keeps one involved even as it can make you sick. Earlier shows left some breathing room. This series does not. The camerawork on Succession throws the viewer to the lions of this cynical, inbred fictional world of people screaming in pain, acting out vainly, fated to endlessly repeat their self-involved dramas. We cannot escape this closed universe, which is so absurd as to ring true.
This is the success of Succession. It won’t let us get any distance on our culture’s ugly failure. The shallow disrepute of our kingpins, the dishonorable character of our fellow underlings, the uncontrollable rage and anger shoved outward, which is really a kind of inward self-loathing with nowhere to go—the camera positions us in a place where there will be no pause, no mercy, no easing up from these intensely fictionalized, almost unreal, and certainly almost unbearable realities.
On Succession, we are always about to get torn asunder, always about to get swallowed alive. One longs to get away from the immersive relentlessness of the show’s sneering moral decay, but the teeth keep coming too close for comfort. One hopes to step back from its commanding swirl of foul betrayal, but the dust chokes our throats. We get too near and the camera keeps smacking us around, much as all the characters do to each other. We seek some perch away from the viciousness, some respite from the endless harsh grip of the destabilized view. It is not to be found.
Camera as bully. Camera as gaslighter. Us in the show. Show lurking behind us in the real room. Succession grabs our heads and shakes us violently. It is twisted, and it twists us. It won’t let us out of this bloody arena, our modern world, a theater of the absurd, a theater of cruelty.