‘Succession,’ ‘Sex and the City’ and the Age of Zombie IP

'Succession,' 'Sex and the City' and
Yinchen Niu/VIP+; AP Images

The HBO series “Succession” had its fan base buzzing heading into Sunday’s third-season finale by hinting at a potential cliffhanger to come: Was one of its main characters, Kendall Roy, being killed off?

It sure looked like a distinct possibility due to the closing image of the penultimate episode, which showed Roy floating face down motionless in a swimming pool. If that wasn’t enough to get tongues wagging, a much-talked-about New Yorker profile of the Emmy winner who plays Roy, Jeremy Strong, published last week with the kind of blunt quotes from other people tied to the “Succession” production that could easily be interpreted as suggesting they were done working with the temperamental actor.

But as the world learned Sunday when the finale aired, Kendall Roy did in fact survive, and there’s every indication Strong is returning next season.

In retrospect, the sense of suspense that hung in the air in the days leading up to the finale feels a little ridiculous: Why would any TV show in 2021 kill off any essential character?

Consider how ubiquitous rebooted series have become these days, particularly on HBO. Just last week, “Sex and the City” was revived for a 10-episode run called “And Just Like That.” In October, another classic HBO staple, “The Sopranos,” came back as a movie, “The Many Saints of Newark”; series creator David Chase also signed a deal that could yield more “Sopranos” spinoffs.

Yet more HBO classics are on the way: As Variety exclusively reported last week, the resurrection of mortuary drama “Six Feet Under” is currently being planned.

A few years ago it would have seemed silly to wonder whether if once “Succession” goes off the air we’ll ever see it again. Now it seems almost certain that “Succession” will be back in some shape or form in 5-10 years, probably with Strong in tow. And you can’t do that if you kill off his character.

Everywhere you look across the many streaming services in operation today you can see the bumper crop of reboots coming soon: “How I Met Your Father” (Hulu), “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (Peacock), “Criminal Minds” (Paramount+) and “Party Down” (Starz), just to name a few. No wonder the streaming sector is powering the continued rise of the peak-TV phenomenon.

Why this trend is playing out is not a mystery: There’s a voracious appetite for original programming to fill these streaming services, and there’s no easier way to guarantee audiences will show up in such a hyper-cluttered content landscape than by trotting out old titles sure to attract a built-in fan base.

It’s a trend that’s been dubbed the zombification of intellectual property: No show ever dies anymore.

By no means is this a new trend, but what was once a treatment reserved for the biggest hits will be extended to any series that managed to eke out even a small devoted audience for just a few years.

Not too long ago I might have thought that as simple as it sounds to continue rebooting a show in a way that mixes some nostalgia-inducing familiarity with some new sensibility, there’s only so many ways to keep a creative concept seeming fresh.

But that went out the window as a concern for me when I saw what HBO did with “And Just Like That.” The fun, fizzy tone of the original series was completely replaced in its new incarnation with depressing storylines focused on grief. It was a creative choice I found admirably brave, but given how critics have savaged the show for this sin, perhaps it was more foolhardy than courageous. Nevertheless, the show generated the biggest audience for a new series HBO Max has seen since launch.

We’re going to start thinking of hit TV shows as we’ve already been conditioned to think of hit movies: franchises that won’t ever go away permanently as long as there’s a following that cared enough about them.

On the cinema side of things, this has always been a trend that invites no small degree of hand-wringing: The sequelization of everything in sight crowds out the introducing of new originals. Of course, Hollywood has a way of proving that conventional wisdom wrong from time to time, as it did in August when Fox managed to successfully launch the Ryan Reynolds vehicle “Free Guy” (which, natch, is spawning a sequel, too).

But the way this trend is accelerating as of late is going to change the cultural climate around hit TV shows, particularly when they’re about to end their runs. The notion of series finales as event viewing will diminish because only the most unsophisticated of viewers will be deluded enough to think they’re losing a beloved program for good. Shows won’t so much die as they will be put in a deep freeze, to be thawed out for another run once the field lies fallow long enough to get fans jonesing for more, as they inevitably will.