tv review

Succession Is a Compelling Portrait of Untrustworthy Power Players

You’re not supposed to like the wealthy, entitled, scheming assholes in HBO’s Succession. It’s a testament to series creator Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, The Thick of It), the other writers and directors, and the droll family drama’s excellent ensemble cast that you do like them.

Well, maybe “like” is not the right word. “Fascinated by” might be the better way to describe one’s feelings toward media mogul Logan Roy (a ruthless Brian Cox) and his various grown children, all of whom engage in Machiavellian efforts to gain or maintain powerful roles in Waystar Royko, their father’s media empire. The first episode — which debuts Sunday and was directed by executive producer Adam McKay, returning to a milieu not entirely dissimilar from his film The Big Short — spends most of its time establishing the relationships within the Roy family before a crisis occurs. It might not fully draw you in, but episode two — which takes place almost entirely in a hospital — and the ones that follow in this ten-episode season increasingly will.

The first episode, “Celebration,” finds Logan’s most corporate-focused son and heir apparent, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), in panic mode. He’s having trouble nailing down a deal with a digital media company and he’s on the verge of losing his position in Waystar Royko.

Meanwhile, Logan, who is celebrating a birthday, is having second thoughts about his plans to retire as CEO. As the family gathers to fete their father, the three other Roy children — Roman (Kieran Culkin), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Connor (Alan Ruck) — are prepared to finally make corporate nepotism work in their favor. But then, a health emergency throws everyone’s future plans into chaos and shakes the foundations at Waystar Royko on multiple fronts.

It’s immediately obvious that Logan — a stubborn, cantankerous man who sometimes ends meetings by grumbling, “Fuck off” —  is loosely based on Rupert Murdoch. While his business holdings are as diverse as theme parks and telecommunications ventures, his main focus is on his media holdings, including a news network called ATN News that is clearly inspired by Fox News. In case that connection isn’t obvious, when a story breaks about a Senate candidate’s husband sharing a picture of his rectum on social media, Roman jokes that it will interest ATN’s audience because it’s emblematic of the “liberal butt love that makes our viewership angry enough to buy pharmaceuticals.”

However, the real-world connections don’t overwhelm the series. The Roys may be slightly reminiscent of the Murdochs or, as other reviewers have pointed out, the Bluths from Arrested Development. But each of them has his or her own revealed idiosyncrasies and those are what make the show pop. Sure, there are intriguing plot twists involving leadership shake-ups, debts that must be paid, and a scandal in the cruise department that requires a hasty cover-up. But ultimately, it’s the behavior of these blatant power-seekers — and the performances by the actors who play them — that turn Succession from a mildly interesting dramedy into a full-blown addiction.

Roman is the snarky, lazy one, and Culkin makes him ooze with an arrogant know-it-all-ism that would be a total turn-off in real life but is absolutely delicious to watch on television. He has a way of smirking that is simultaneously charming and begging for a smack in the face. Snook (The Glass Castle, Steve Jobs) infuses Shiv with a resolute manipulativeness, aided by an absolutely obliviousness to the hardships of others. When she asks her cousin if he has cash she can borrow to buy something from a vending machine, he holds up a $20 bill while noting it’s his last one. “Thanks,” she says, snatching it from him without giving it a millisecond of thought.

Connor lives in New Mexico and is sort of an odd sibling out. But by episode four, when he’s put in charge of overseeing the family’s annual charity ball, it’s clear he’s delusional in his own way. “The butter is too cold!” he screams at the whole kitchen staff in the middle of the event. “There’s dinner rolls ripping out there as we speak! I am a laughing stock!” And then there’s Kendall, who radiates intensity and a desire to push the company forward — “Bring me new original multimedia content,” he exhorts the staff — but tiptoes around his father like he’s walking on thin ice covered with a layer of egg shells.

Even characters who seem extraneous develop more and more layers as the series progresses. Shiv’s fiancé, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), seems at first like a sycophantic bonehead. And he is. But as played by Macfadyen, he also reveals more sinister ways of using people: He’s a coward who can suddenly shock you by turning into a snake, as seen when he worms his way into a bigger title at Waystar Royko.

But the most delightfully ridiculous character of all is Greg (Nicholas Braun), Logan’s nephew who is so ill-equipped for employment that he can’t even make it through a day of dressing as a character at one of the Waystar amusement parks without getting so high that he barfs all over the inside of his mask. Greg’s mother insists that he go to Logan’s birthday party and manipulate his way into getting a job. Miraculously, he does wheedle his way into the inner family circle, mainly due to his willingness to serve as the lackey and inept errand boy of whichever Roy family member decides to use and abuse him next. By episode three and four, it’s so absurd that he’s able to hanging around (and Braun has such fun highlighting his lack of social skills), that every time Greg appears on screen you feel happy to see him.

The environs on Succession — the glass doors and windows of Waystar Royko’s Manhattan offices, the obviously expensive but sterile homes where each Roy lives — give the series a chilly prestige vibe. The vibrancy that counterbalances it comes from sharp writing, which is filled with great zingers and creative ways of bending the English language. When Kendall tries to make the case that a verbal agreement is not binding, he says, “Words are just nothing — complicated airflow.” When Tom sees his predecessor, a beloved figure in the cruises and travel division of the company, bidding farewell to his staff, he says ruefully, “It’s like Mandela fucked Santa and gave birth to Bill.” In moments like those, Succession can feel like a profane mix of Billions and Veep.

One thing that give me pause about the show is the fact that it’s yet another focused on the upper class. Succession doesn’t glorify the moneyed and merciless, of course. These characters are not only flawed and untrustworthy; most of them are completely unqualified for their jobs and only earned them because they happen to share the same blood as an old-guard member of the boys club. Succession is a funny, incisive portrait of the dynamics within a well-off family, but it’s also a cautionary tale about how dicey and unethical it is to employ too many relatives. That’s a message that at least a few people in power could benefit from hearing.

Succession Is a Portrait of Untrustworthy Power Players