One Question Quiz
A man in an orange police jumpsuit sits in jail looking worried.
Bill Hader as Barry in Barry. (Photo: Supplied / Treatment: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureMay 15, 2023

Is this the end of peak TV?

A man in an orange police jumpsuit sits in jail looking worried.
Bill Hader as Barry in Barry. (Photo: Supplied / Treatment: Tina Tiller)

Why the finales of Succession and Barry mark the end of an era that may never be matched.

* This is an excerpt of Rec Room, The Spinoff’s Friday TV newsletter. Subscribe to regular instalments here.

Mobs are forming, slogans are written and placards are being waved. (My favourite? “I don’t write funny signs. I’m on strike.”) Right now, chants are ringing out around many of Hollywood’s gleaming TV streaming headquarters as the industry’s 11,000 writers go on strike. They’re campaigning for more pay and better working conditions, claiming that in the streaming era, standards have deteriorated so much they’re struggling to scrape together a living. If you dig into the details, it sounds rough. “This is an existential fight for the future of the business of writing,” one told The New Yorker.

At the same time, something else is happening. Two groundbreaking, pivotal, zeitgeist-grabbing shows – ones that will go on to define this era of peak, prestige TV – are coming to an end. On May 28 (May 29 in Aotearoa), the awesome fourth and final seasons of Succession and Barry bow out, both on a high, having pushed TV to its absolute limits.

The Roys aimed a scythe at the super-rich, resulting in some of the best storylines and incisive dialogue (“Your earlobes are thick and chewy … like barnacle meat”) in recent memory. Barry, meanwhile, has delivered cinematic storytelling of the highest order. No show has made my ageing 55-inch TV look more ancient than the widescreen antics of Bill Hader blurring the lines between hitman and actor.

A pack of whalers in Antarctica depicted in the TV show The North Water.
Colin Farrell, left, in The North Water. (Photo: Supplied)

These things may not seem linked, but they absolutely are. TV shows that we all watch en masse are fading fast. Those water-cooler moments are petering out. As streaming services fight for market share, struggling to survive as we savvy switch away, no one’s really watching the same thing at the same time anymore. We’re all in our own bubbles. Maybe you’re watching Poker Face on TVNZ+. Perhaps you’re bingeing Dead Ringers on Prime Video. You might be halfway through The Diplomat on Netflix, or The North Water on TVNZ+. Wherever you’re at, it doesn’t matter: there’s always more TV coming, a faucet that’s become an out-of-control firehose.

And so, to the strikes. According to those on the front lines, streaming services want writers to become freelance commodities, hired and fired at will, giving them no ownership of their material, or growth in their field. Writers are worried that their craft is being diminished by AI and “mini-rooms” that ask them to smash out entire series and take on producing and showrunning roles, but never get to the set for the show they’re working on. You can’t progress if they don’t let you.

Tom and Shiv in Succession. (Photo: Supplied)

Shows like Succession and Barry don’t get that good by chance. They need to be crafted. The kind of Shakespearean dialogue coming out of the mouths of Logan, Kendall, Roman, Shiv and Connor has been sweated over in writer’s room for hours, every possible permeation and combination put together and taken apart until they find the perfect moment. How else could this week’s brutal balcony fight scene between Tom and Shiv – “You fobbed me off with that undrinkable wine … and you won’t have my baby” – have landed with such ferocious intensity?

Likewise, Barry’s fourth season, in which the show morphs from Breaking Bad into Better Call Saul in a fraction of the time, has visuals that have been painstakingly put together. Whether that’s the grisly mass murder sandpit scene, or a gunman’s shadow falling across a darkened door, you just know that multiple people have talked this through, argued their point, then come to the best possible resolution for the audience. Holy wow does it show. I’ve been watching each episode twice, and see something new every time.

In three weeks, Succession and Barry will be no more. They’re not the only ones reaching the end of their runs. Stranger Things’ fifth and final season is coming soon. The Crown’s upcoming sixth season will be its last too. Long-running, game-changing shows are becoming harder to find. Severance, on Apple TV+, is the only recent show I can think of that has a chance of recreating that zeitgeisty magic, reaching out beyond its cult fanbase to become something more.

Throw in the writer’s strike – everyone I’ve spoken to about it believes this is going to last much longer than in 2008 – and it seems TV of this calibre could soon be in short supply. Right now, no one’s writing a damn thing, and nor should they. A content shortage is on its way. So, with three weeks left of Barry and Succession, you may want to grab some of Tom’s undrinkable wine and savour them. Enjoy this moment. Relish the next chilling scene between Shiv and Tom, or the dead-eyed stare of Barry, because it’s quite possible TV will never get better than this moment we have right here, right now.

Keep going!