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Saying goodbye to our friends — the good ('Doc Martin'), the bad ('Succession') and the cuddly ('Ted Lasso')

Television series from L to R: Ted Lasso, Succession, Doc Martin. (Courtesy Apple TV; Macall Polay/HBO; KCET)
Television series from L to R: Ted Lasso, Succession, Doc Martin. (Courtesy Apple TV; Macall Polay/HBO; KCET)

Lately, all my friends are telling me they just don’t want to hang out with me anymore. I’ve just recently said goodbye to the fastidiously funny “Doc Martin” and all the Port Wenn eccentrics from Cornwall he has made his unlikely extended family. “Ted Lasso” is about to coach his last soccer match with AFC Richmond.

And, of course, the big farewell comes Sunday with the boys and girl from the other side of the tracks, the spoiled and soiled children of Logan Roy in “Succession. How in the world will showrunner Jesse Armstrong end this bafflingly beguiling, satanically charming series?

“Succession” has a tougher task than the others, not just because they’re comedies. “Doc Martin” (on Acorn TV and other platforms, including Channel 44 in the fall) thrived from the beginning to the tenth season’s ending on the idea of community. For those who haven’t drunk the ambrosia, Dr. Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes) was assigned to a small Cornwall town because of a blood phobia that prevented him from becoming the brilliant London surgeon he seemed destined to be. Not only that, but he’s somewhere on the spectrum and says exactly what he thinks to the locals who, despite (or because of) his rudeness and lack of social skills, flock to his side while he tries to shoo them away. This includes dogs as well as people. He did painstakingly drop his misanthropy to marry the local teacher Louisa (Caroline Catz), who, along with his aunt (the brilliant Eileen Atkins) have provided the moral center for the show.

This was not, though, a sappy story in which the salt of the earth working class folks teach the hyper-rational doctor, whom most of them call Doc instead of his preferred Dr. Ellingham, to relax into village life, even though he sort of does.

The show’s creator, Dominic Minghella (brother of Anthony, anagram of Ellingham), and the other writers made Doc the core of the show as much as Logan Roy was the core of “Succession,” and we side with him as much as against him. Like a humorless Larry David, he says what rational people are thinking when confronted with home remedies, ineptitude and pretentiousness. Still, he needed comeuppance for his rudeness, and nobody was better at giving it to him than Clunes himself, who would laugh as he’d talk about making him walk into low beams in village houses and other indignities. Talk about disappearing into your role — Clunes is a jovial dog lover.

I won’t say much about the finale — actually, there are two, since there was a pre-planned Christmas special — other than it stays true to the centrality of community. As guest star Rupert Graves, playing an émigré from London, says in the show’s finale, “It’s nice here. Everybody’s looking out for everybody else. It’s a nice change from the city.”

“Ted Lasso” flips the formula. He’s the Mark Twainish American who’s been hired to coach an English soccer team in the owner’s hopes that he’ll be a disaster and she can revenge herself on her ex-husband. As others festoon him with mean-spiritedness, he self-effacingly sticks his hands in his pockets and finds a way through.

If “Doc Martin” stresses community, “Ted Lasso” centers commonality. It’s not always believable, but between the acting (particularly Jason Sudeikis), the writing and directing, it’s almost always compelling. They’ve had their trials, but the team sticks together and finds common ground, as do the non-athletes. It’s not only how you’d like the Boston Celtics to work, it’s how you’d like the world to work (including the pitch-perfect musical soundtrack).

In the following scene, Ted walks away from his son (Gus Turner) and fellow American Coach Beard (co-creator Brendan Hunt) to take a call from the team owner (the delightful Hannah Waddingham) while Alex Vargas begins to sing “Hey Jude.” Ted, of course, is an expert at taking sad songs and making them better.

“Ted” was always envisioned as a three-year series for Apple TV+ though the creators have been lobbied to continue it. Last week’s penultimate episode all but announced that Ted will go back to the States at the end of the season and leave the team in the hands of Nate (Nick Mohammed), his protegé turned nemesis turned protegé. Some successions are predictable. Writer and actor Brett Goldstein (the gruff Roy Kent) joked that in this Wednesday’s finale, everybody dies.

Not everybody will die on “Succession,” and I’d venture to say not many viewers want them to, despite their awfulness. But the characters are the polar opposites of the principals of “Ted Lasso” and “Doc Martin.” Community and commonality are not traits to be admired in their playbooks. They are so siloed that fellow family members, except for in rare moments, are competitors, not siblings, sons, daughters, fathers or mothers.

Some of the subtext is liberal wish fulfillment about conservative values. This is the end result of unchecked capitalism: a family that would back fascism for the sake of ratings and power. Sound familiar?

But the genius of the show is that they have never become the family we love to hate or hate to love. Jesse Armstrong doesn’t descend into those cliches; we bask in the richness of their portrayals fueled by great writing, great casting, acting and great direction and cinematography — an easy-to-overlook key to making great television.

The way that New York is shot, unlike the New York of, say, Woody Allen, is hard and soulless. And the way the characters are framed speaks volumes. Shot by a number of fine cinematographers, those close-ups of Brian Cox’s Logan are almost as important as Cox’s jaw-dropping acting abilities in portraying a man who made emotional barrenness equally chilling and thrilling but always riveting.

The same can be said for the writing, acting and cinematography surrounding the four children. Each of their close-ups is worth the proverbial thousand words, showing that each of them lacks what the father had — Jeremy Strong’s Kendall exuding under-confidence or over-confidence but never the real thing; Sarah Snook’s Shiv’s calculations that seem sharp at first but go horribly wrong; Kieran Culkin’s Roman whose Logan-like amorality is undermined by dialogue and a smile so cynical that you almost hate yourself for laughing at his lines. Almost. Logan wisely summed his offspring up as not serious people before he died. The sadness and anger in his face as he said that pretty much defined the series. And speaking of not-serious people, how about Alan Ruck’s Connor and his wife Willa, played by Justine Lupe? They might seem like unreal comic relief until you look at Robert Kennedy Jr. and Cheryl Hines, and then the satire seems pretty right on.

So where does that leave the three younger, more serious contenders for the throne as Sunday’s finale looms? Roman was a contender only in his mind save for a brief moment in Logan’s, but he played himself out of contention with his funereal meltdown last week. He had also been played (Kendall used a more colorful verb) by the possible president (Justin Kirk’s Jeryd Mencken) in getting him to call the election for him. There’s every indication that Shiv will find herself in the same having-been-played boat with Alexander Skarsgård’s Lukas Matsson. Her ascension to American CEO of Waystar Royco is becoming less and less likely to judge from that evil look in Mattson’s eyes when they’re discussing her betrayal of the Roy family.

That leaves Kendall. He has been making the right moves lately — the dialogue with his dead father that he engineered at Waystar’s annual meeting; saving the funeral from descending into chaos with his brilliant eulogy:

On the other hand, while Logan thundered, he either had logic on his side or listened to logic when he was wrong. Kendall flails instead of thunders, making absurd demands with his father in extremis, his wife about to leave town, or his aide calling it quits because he sold his soul to the fascist president-maybe-elect. Kendall’s surprising highs and bizarre lows make him an unlikely leader of Waystar, though he wouldn’t be the first person to flail in the shoes of his father. I’m just not sure it makes dramatic sense.

What does make more dramatic sense, if a bit predictable, is for the three would-be successors to go over the proverbial cliff together. Even if Roman weren’t out because of his meltdown, there are the obscene photos he sent to Gerri. Both Roman and Shiv can block Kendall by exposing that he accidentally drowned a waiter (Season One). Shiv has the cleanest path to succession, despite her pressuring a witness not to testify in the cruise ship scandal in which sexual abuse and possibly murder were covered up by Waystar Royco (Season Two), though she probably needs Matsson, and Matsson has treachery in his eyes.

And if there’s a scandal over how the election was called for Mencken, then they could all go down, including Tom. That gives a bit of power to Greg, though putting him in charge, even as a Matsson puppet, would be a ludicrous way to end the show.

I am notoriously bad at predicting how shows will end, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mencken winds up as the president and doesn’t block Matsson from taking over Waystar. That would set up a potential new series with two HBO all-stars, Kirk from “Angels in America” and Skarsgård from “True Blood” and “Big Little Lies” playing catch with the soul of America.

There’s a lot at stake for producer Jesse Armstrong as well as for the Roys. In trying to sum everything up, the creators of “Game of Thrones” and “Lost” ruined the legacy of those shows with their awful finales. “Seinfeld” was an equally famous disaster, though it hasn’t hurt the show’s well-deserved reputation. And then there’s the grand statement phenomenon in which the writers of “The Sopranos” and “St. Elsewhere” called more attention to themselves than to the show, even though I liked them both at the time.

Finales have one thing in common. The great ones (“Mad Men” and “Doc Martin”) don’t try to sum up the future for their characters; they sum up the essence of the show itself.  Spoiler alert for the “Doc Martin” finale coming: The small gesture of Dr. Ellingham opening the door to Chicken the dog was almost as inspired as Don Draper creating the Coke ad while meditating in “Mad Men,” which remains the gold standard for finales (though I’m old enough to have awfully fond memories of “The Prisoner.”)

Of course, each show demands its own finale. Dr. Ellingham learns the true meaning of Christmas from his son in the final finale. Ted Lasso will no doubt be reunited with his son on Wednesday. We’re not going to find the true meaning of  Christmas on “Succession” this Sunday.


Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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