The Part Two of my “Best of 2021” is really just a rant. And why not? This column has been remarkably civil so far.
The rant stems from the last of my “Best of” questions: What was the best television show of 2021?
I’m not going to blow any minds here. My choice is the same as everyone else’s: HBO’s Succession. I have my quibbles with the show, and particularly this season, which was a little slower than previous seasons. I wish they’d mixed things up more. I wish they’d killed someone off. I wish every second word out of every character’s mouth wasn’t “fuck.” But, as I said, these are quibbles. If you haven’t watched it, you have a tremendous treat awaiting you.
So what’s my rant? Well, it has to do with a profile that ran in the New Yorker magazine of one of the show’s stars, Jeremy Strong. Strong plays the character Kendall Roy, son of Logan Roy, the patriarch around whom the show revolves. The article was by Michael Schulman. I should say, before I go any further, that I am both a huge fan of the New Yorker (where I worked for many years) and of Michael Schulman. He’s written some wonderful pieces on Meryl Streep and Michael Shannon, among others. So please keep that in mind.
The profile is generous, in part. But it tries very hard to make you dislike Jeremy Strong. Schulman quotes people who have worked with Strong saying that they find him insufferable. He paints Strong as a climber, a relentless networker, a man of overweening self-seriousness and more than a little ridiculous.
There are lots of passages like this:
Or this, about a movie where Strong played someone with autism:
There is a particularly brutal scene where Schulman meets up with Strong in Copenhagen, and Strong leads the two of them on a late-night search first for the best burger in Copenhagen. And, when that quest comes to naught, Strong insists on an equally fruitless search for the second-best burger in Copenhagen. Writers of profiles include those kinds of everyday life set pieces for a reason: they want to make their subjects look a little ridiculous.
I have several thoughts about this. First, ever since I joined the workforce (many many years ago!) I’ve noticed that bosses and coworkers love to attach the label of “difficult” to certain kinds of employees. But it has also struck me that that term has two very different meanings. First, there are people I would call instrumentally difficult: that is to say, people who take what they do so seriously and are so driven to perfection that they impose burdens on others. Second, there are the malignantly difficult: people who impose burdens on others because they are needlessly or maliciously or flagrantly annoying. The burdens on managers and co-workers in both cases can feel the same. But the roots and consequences of each kind of difficulty could not be more different.
In my first big job at the Washington Post, many years ago, I worked with a reporter named Mike Isikoff. Mike—as I think even he would admit—was difficult! But he was instrumentally difficult. He was passionate and perfectionististic and demanding in the course of doing his work, and those characteristics were a big part of the reason that he is—hands down—one of the greatest investigative reporters of his generation. Mike was not malignant. He was, in fact, hilarious and charming. We shared an editor in those early years, a wonderful man named Frank Swoboda. It would fall to Frank to defend Mike before other Washington Post editors who found Mike difficult, and Frank would always make a version of this argument: A newspaper is in the business of breaking news. It is our job as editors to put up with whatever occasional inconveniences or burdens our reporters impose on us in the pursuit of this goal. (“If being difficult was a crime,” Frank once told me, when I was being difficult, “we’d all be in jail.”) There were plenty of other reporters at the Post in those years who were a delight to be around… and who never broke a story in their lives. We can privilege instrumental ease over instrumental difficulty, but before long we won’t have a newspaper anymore.
So what is Jeremy Strong? He’s not malignantly difficult. Nothing unearthed by Schulman suggests that Strong is anything other than a thoughtful and kind and conscientious person. He’s instrumentally difficult. And if you take on the task of finding the “real in the make-believe” as seriously as Strong does, you will unavoidably impose burdens on others.
Remember that quote from someone on the design team that they had “bigger things to deal with” than give Strong the personalized props he wanted? What? It wasn’t like he was pouting in his trailer, or four hours late to the set, or strung out on drugs. He was trying to do his job better. And if you work on a movie set, and you have bigger things to do than help the star of the movie do his job better, you should look for another career.
Then there is this section:
Strong is correct, of course. As anyone who has watched more than five minutes of Succession knows, his character would never eat a Waldorf salad. And that error threw Jeremy Strong off his game. He wanted to be Kendall Roy, and he couldn’t be Kendall Roy if he was forced to do something that Kendall Roy wouldn’t do. On Succession, Jeremy Strong has given one of the most extraordinary and compelling acting performances of his generation. Are we seriously going to let the hassle of switching out $9 appetizers get in the way of that?
I wish Michael Schulman had made this argument. The endless litany of anonymous quotes that Schulman assembles from people sniping about how difficult Jeremy Strong is would have made a lot more sense if he had pointed out that sometimes putting up with a little instrumental difficulty is just the price you pay for art.
Give the man his salad.