It’s been almost six months since the series finale of Succession and Jesse Armstrong has been enjoying the rest.
“There was some sadness about the show ending,” says the British creator and showrunner of HBO‘s multiple Emmy-winning drama, which followed the misadventures of the deliriously dysfunctional Roy family, owners of media and entertainment conglomerate Waystar Royco. “[But] doing the show was such a rush of pleasure and anxieties and hard work, of pondering the next season and worrying that you’re going to screw it up [that] is is very, very nice to have time to read again. And to travel.”
Since Succession finished, Armstrong has been on a bit of a victory lap, attending international television festivals and book tours (Faber and Faber published a series of authorized Succession script books) while pondering what to do next.
He’s had an incredible run so far.
Even before Succession, which has won 13 Emmys, Armstrong was comedy royalty back home, as co-creator, with writing partner Sam Bain, on the hit Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show, and co-writer, with Bain and Brit TV icon Christopher Morris, on the dark political satire Four Lions (2010), about a quartet of phenomenally incompetent British terrorists. He also penned “The Entire History of You,” one of the best-ever episodes of Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror (at the time the episode was optioned by Robert Downey Jr.’s production company, but nothing came of it).
Armstrong will receive the 2023 Founders Award from the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences at the International Emmy Awards in New York on Monday. Ahead of the event, he spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about missing the Roys, watching the real-life drama of the Murdoch family succession and the impact of his words (including Peep Show‘s Project Zeus) in the wild.
Do you miss the Roys, writing for these characters?
It’s a good question. On the whole, honestly, no. I feel I feel like we did a good job in the way we ended the story. I’m in touch with the cast and meet up with Brian [Cox] or Matthew [Macfadyen], and I text a bit with Sarah [Snook] or Kieran [Culkin] and Jeremy [Strong], so I do have pangs of regret with having had such an extraordinarily brilliant cast. I can’t quite bear to think that I’m not going to write for that group again. So I’m a little bit in denial about that. But on a day-to-day level, I don’t miss it. I’m enjoying not having the tremendous pressure of making the show as good as we all wanted it to be.
Did you feel any pressure to keep the show going? I’m sure HBO wanted more seasons.
It was challenging. It was a big decision. I didn’t take it lightly. I’d been thinking about it when we were doing season three. And then it was absolutely a big preoccupation, all the time between season three and season four. I was chewing on it and I’d meet up with some other of my writer friends just to think it through. It was a very slow gestation, by no means made on the hoof. It took a lot of the time before I got to the view of thinking this is what we should do. I told everyone: “This was how the story should go, I feel this in my bones, but please try to argue me out of it.” There were all sorts of reasons we’d have liked to carry on. But once you’ve felt that this is the natural end, it’s a very hard gut feeling to roll back on.
You seemed to time it perfectly. The Murdochs, who were a partial inspiration for the show, carried out their real-life succession after the season finale. What do you think of this version of life imitating art?
Well, life didn’t really imitate as [Rupert Murdoch] left while he’s still very much alive. And he has apparently chosen his successor from amongst his children. So it’s rather different from our situation. But yeah, I mean, everyone knows there are parallels between the two [the show and the Murdochs]. I’ve always been keen to both admit that and also point out how many different family structures are out there, not least the [Viacom family dynasty] the Redstones and [British media moguls] the Maxwells of this world. So yes, I did follow the Murdoch succession with interest. He’s a titanic figure in modern news and culture. But it doesn’t seem to have that many parallels with what happened in our fictional world.
After having this amazing one-two run of Peep Show and Succession, do you feel tremendous anxiety ahead of your next show? Are you working on anything at the moment?
No, I’m not. I’m taking a break. I have three or four projects I like the shape of and I like looking at them on my whiteboard but I’ve not quite embarked in earnest on any writing yet. I’m enjoying reading books. I’ve written a couple of reviews for places and quite enjoyed that, doing a slightly different version of writing and thinking. I’m sure it’ll be a tremendous pressure when I do start whatever I write next, whether it’s for film, TV or a book. But at the moment, it’s not pressing down on me too hard. I’m sure it will when it comes around.
Is there any desire to go back to old ideas? Like, say doing a Peep Show movie or reviving some of the characters or some of the ideas you’ve done in other shows?
There are no Peep Show revivals on the cards. I like working with [Peep Show co-creator Sam Bain]. We never stopped writing together because of any lack of enjoyment. We didn’t fall out. We just ended up doing different things. So I’d always write with Sam again if we had the right thing cooking. But I don’t think there’s anything I’ve got that I’d like to come back to. I guess I’ve got projects that have never seen the light of day that I could return to, but the ideas I get excited about are the new ones. So I think what I’ll do next will be something new.
When it comes to your next project, will you be staying with HBO?
We haven’t got any new agreement at the moment, but I’ve been very happy there. So I have to see what they offer and what’s around.
Do you see a connection between Peep Show and Succession? Is there something that links the two shows, either in how you approached the stories and the characters or in your worldview expressed through them?
That’s interesting. I guess so. Obviously, Succession was a collaboration with a writers’ room and Peep Show was very much just a duo. Me and Sam wrote the majority of it. We did nine series, so it’s very much in my bones, the feeling of it, how the show worked. There are probably all sorts of links between them, but you might be better at seeing them than me. When you’re so close to something, it can be hard. It occurred to me that Succession has a number of different tones to it, both comic and dramatic, and I think anyone watching it can feel this mixture of tonal places it can go, but I think the shapes are still self-contained. Although it’s a serialized TV show, where the story carries on across the seasons, there is something in my writing DNA that comes from doing sitcoms like Peep Show, which just likes the completeness of the single episode. I still think of myself as a comedy writer. The elements of Succession that are comic seem much clearer and more continuous in my writing to me.
One of the things I find most compelling about Succession is how completely unsexy and unglamorous you make the super rich seem. Even the most gorgeous, beautiful locations and settings somehow seem drab and horrible, and these all-powerful characters feel ridiculous and idiotic as any of us.
I guess, you know, truth is my favorite flavor, and truth is both funny and sad. If you can get to it, it’s great. And I guess truth, in my view, is the enemy of mythologizing somebody or something. I’m not particularly interested in myth or mythology. I mean, I’m interested in it in the sense that I’m interested in human stories, but I’m not interested in creating mythic characters or getting involved in any of that end of the narrative business. I’m interested in the truth in narrative business.
Do you think saying — or showing — this kind of truth can lead to change in the real world?
Honestly, you don’t know what effect your words are going to have in the world. They may have the opposite effect from what you intend. Your ideas can get taken up and used against you. You lose control as soon as you put them into the world. If you try and keep a tighter control on them, you’d have to make a propaganda poster, which can only be understood in one way. I’m not interested in that whatsoever. I’m interested in things that are multiple, human and complicated, where you therefore run the risk of being misunderstood or having your ideas used against your will. But that’s okay. I don’t judge our work on the show by its affecting the world. For me, it’s like the difference between medical drugs and psychoactive recreational drugs. We are not producing a medical drug which is if you take this thing it will cure your democracy. Absolutely not. That’s not my business. But it may be a positive form of psychoactive or recreational drugs, something you might enjoy or might make you see the world a little differently. But there are dangers with those drugs too. I think that’s that’s the business I’m in: Recreational drugs, not pharmaceuticals.
I have at least one example of a real-life positive impact of your words. A British colleague of mine and his wife have taken to using your term Project Zeus [from Peep Show, where it was used in one episode to describe the merging of marketing and sales at a finance company], whenever they are planning something utterly mundane in their household. Like shifting the kitchen table to another corner, it’s ‘Unleash Project Zeus.’
Everyone likes it when their work goes out and does great good in the world. It sounds like it’s had a tremendously positive effect. I’m very happy for them.
We often ask writers and producers what shows they would have loved to make, and your shows come up all the time. How about you? What is a show you wished you could have made, or one that you’ve watched and thought “That’s something so far outside my experiences, I could never have done that”?
There are three shows by women creators, some of whom I know a bit and don’t so well, but I think of Lucy Prebble’s I Hate Suzie, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. With all of them, the gap between my experiences and those creative experiences is such that I can watch them and I don’t have that feeling of: “Oh, fuck, I wish I’d done that!” because they are just so beyond my own life. I couldn’t and I wouldn’t know how to tell those stories. The second season of Fleabag in particular was very important to me. I remember were were in the middle of writing season three [of Succession], and I went to a little screening of the first episode that Amazon did in New York. I don’t know if you remember the episode but it starts with a dinner party at a restaurant, this particular family situation. I just found it very inspiring. It came at exactly the right point for me. I watched it and said: “Wow, there is so much you can do with this form.” If you get it right, you can tell so much about what happens within a family. I just needed that little tap to remember how lucky I am to be able to put my version of the world out there and to be reminded how big the room that you can inhabit can be if you get it right.