Succession review: HBO series is a compelling take on dysfunctional families, media, power and privilege
Succession is filled with loathsome, self-centred people who can be hard to like, but are still very very watchable.
Sky Atlantic’s gritty drama Succession, about the dysfunctional family of a media mogul, sounds a lot like Chernobyl for Rupert Murdoch.
Even though show creator Jesse Armstrong has denied it, the comparisons were always going to be inevitable. Murdoch’s media empire is after all, for better or worse, curriculum in journalism schools these days. ‘Murdochisation of media’ is a sign of alarm rather than the heaving whisper of relief in the textbooks around the world. Connection or no connection, Succession was never going to be about wide-eyed ethics, or welfare activism. It is about one despicably greedy and mean family that knows nothing about modesty. Succession is filled with loathsome, self-centred people who can be hard to like, but are still very very watchable.
The show begins with Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) preparing to take over the reins of Waystar Royco, one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world. The man supposed to make way is his father, the bitter, foul-mouthed juggernaut Logan Roy (a brilliant Brian Cox). Kendall has three siblings, Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Connor (Alan Ruck). When the anticipated handover doesn’t go according to plan, Kendall, a charming workaholic is shook up, enough to go against his father. In the midst of everything Logan suffers a stroke which dramatically changes each possible move on the family chessboard. Rather than mope the near demise of their father, each sibling is busy tabulating their projected share, their protracted cuts from the family empire. Logan recovers, but only physically. He becomes bitter, more sneering and at times ludicrously offensive.
In a scene from the first season, Logan bullies his own grandson (Kendall’s boy). In another he unknowingly guides his own daughter’s hand into his privates. Logan’s ways are abhorrent, repulsive and in a patriarchal context, indisputably unhealthy. Yet, it is his money that keeps people around him pining for his good books, including his children. “Everyone’s got their game,” he says, smiling, to Kendall, at one point. It is this half of the sphere that Succession paints incredibly well. There is the fragile, yet opportunistic Greg (Nicholas Braun) who uses the family’s crisis to enter the company on a position that neither him, nor anyone else knows much about. Greg’s trajectory is imprecise, but as an outsider desperate to blend in, his misadventures are fascinating.
Then there is Tom, played immaculately by Matthew Macfadyen, a social climber in love with Shiv, or at least he pretends to be. Tom is embarrassingly committed to becoming part of the Roy family. His uni-polar pursuit of wealth is both caustic and hilarious. Ridiculed every now and then, he can’t crack a joke and has to swallow pride every inch of his way. Show creator Jerry Armstrong, boasts of writing credits for trash-talking political operas like In the Loop (2009) and Veep. Naturally, Succession is supplied with its fair share of graphic and poetic abuses. Every man, especially the cocky Roman Roy, talks in low-ceiling metaphors that rarely rise above the real estate of a man’s genitals. In one scene Roman even masturbates against the window of his office, on his first day, at the company.
Dysfunctional families make for compelling stories. Perhaps, because the human mind loves its courtside seats to breakdowns, of witnessing decadence that makes you feel a little better about yourself.
When that decadence is threaded through the lives of the richest one percent, the notional pleasures must therefore be bigger and better. Succession can at times feel like a guilt-free hate-watch, as if you’re watching Cribs, but with a sadist, tragic undertone all along.
The Roys, all of them are privileged pricks, with nothing but that privilege to fight for. Even though Shiv wants to get into politics and has her eye on backing candidates, she does it entirely for herself. The eldest son Connor is so delusional and wasteful he convinces himself that the only extension of his privilege, of his listlessness would be to become privileged by election - as President of the United States.
For all its macho over-the-stop corporate mudslinging, and potty-mouth philosophising, Succession can at times accomplish a fair bit in terms of human insight. Does anyone want the tree or just the fruit it promises, the show asks? The Roys are radioactive, toxic, but they are still one of the richest families around. Money can bend anything, and in Succession it bends spines, narratives, ambition and inevitably the future of America. In a telling scene from the first season, a defeated Kendall hugs his father, the overbearing Logan. In the background hangs an untitled painting of what seems like peasants falling at the feet of Roman soldiers.
Logan Roy, like Murdoch, is both History and Myth. How does one fight something/someone like him? The second season picks up exactly 48 hours after a dramatic, twisted marriage ceremony for Shiv and Tom. None of the old bite has worn off in the second season. Everyone has their tongues out, their teeth primed for battle.
My only gripe with the trigger-happy series would be the fact that for a show about a media mogul, in the age of guns and Donald Trump, it has its safety on all the time. It sidesteps a fair bit of meat and blood. There is no clarity to politics of Logan or any of his kids. Perhaps that is how it is with the rich; their currency, their equity is their politics.
Succession is vile and absorbing in equal measure. Its second season promises a wider canvas and the introduction perhaps of a little present day perspective that could only elevate this excellent show.
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