Robert Jackman

There’s more to Jesse Armstrong than Succession

There's more to Jesse Armstrong than Succession
Image: HBO/Macall Polay
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It’s Succession week, as the inaugural episode of season three finally lands (available, in the UK, via Sky’s NOW service). Generally considered to be the sharpest and most scathing comedy on television, the Emmy-winning epic known for its globe-trotting locations is actually the brainchild of a Brit: Shropshire-born Jesse Armstrong.

A former collaborator of both Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris (and, interestingly, a former parliamentary researcher), Armstrong is one of the creative minds behind some of the most successful British comedies: although he’s succeeded, on the whole, at keeping his profile more low key than some of his contemporaries.

Not a bad achievement, you might think, for one of the two men (the other being long-term collaborator, Sam Bain) behind Peep Show: Channel 4’s most successful sitcom ever and the home of the likes of Alan Johnson (not the former MP) and Super Hans. Or who helped Brass Eye’s Chris Morris make his much-anticipated return with the terrorism-themed film, Four Lions. Originally mistaken by some as an attempt at courting controversy, the film turned out to be a highly-prescient criticism of counter-terrorism policy, skewering Jihadis and useless police commissioners alike.

The film’s spiritual sequel, The Day Shall Come, again written by Armstrong, is just as clever. Taking its inspiration from seemingly unbelievable true stories, it tells the tale of an ambitious FBI agent determined to bag a promotion by stopping a black revolutionary group from carrying out a terror attack. Never mind the fact, however, that the group in question happens to be an inept religious cult capable of little more than minor neighbourhood nuisance. Like some of the best satires, it has a good tug at your heartstrings too.

Having written for The Thick of It, Armstrong also managed the seemingly impossible: rebutting that law of nature that every mid-2000s British sitcom had to culminate with an underwhelming big screen spin-off. Instead the film that followed  – In The Loop – was as good as the original series: with an exceptional showdown between Peter Capaldi’s cantankerous spin doctor and James Gandolfini’s grandstanding military general that has to be seen to be believed.

He worked on Black Mirror, too, managing to write the best episode in a first season seemingly destined to be defined by its bestiality-themed opening episode. Instead, Armstrong’s episode – The Entire History Of You – was a deft emotional drama still mentioned by critics as amongst the show’s very best episodes. Robert Downey Jr then bought the film rights, but did nothing with them (at least not yet).

Of course, not everything has been a runaway success. A recent film collaboration with Will Ferrell was pretty underwhelming. Although given Ferrell co-produced Succession we can probably let that one go.

Other ideas showed promise before being unfairly snubbed out. 2012’s Bad Sugar stands out as one of those ‘what if?’ moments in British comedy. After all, you just have to look at the premise to see what could have been: with the ever brilliant Olivia Colman alongside Nighty Night’s Julia Davis and Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan in a send-up of Dynasty-style sitcoms. But having managed to broadcast its pilot episode, the show ended up falling victim to creative schedules before eventually being canned entirely.

Still, you suspect that such misfortune will be a thing of the past for Armstrong. After the stellar success of Succession, he will likely find that networks move heaven and earth to get any future projects off the ground. Who knows – perhaps a plucky Netflix executive will even come up with enough money to tempt him to deliver the comedy fanboys’ dream: a reunion series of Peep Show.

That said, you suspect that there’s plenty of mileage left in Succession yet. The third season has lost none of the spleen and momentum that made the first two so watchable. Like Logan Roy himself, you get the feeling that Succession won’t be handing over the keys to its TV fiefdom anytime soon. Thank goodness.