'Succession': TV Review

Like a darker, less wacky 'Arrested Development.'
6/3/2018

It may test the patience of those sick of TV's sagas of the rich and famous, but creator Jesse Armstrong and a cast led by Brian Cox and Kieran Culkin make this a profane, vicious dark comedy.

TV's latest wave of shows fascinated by and sympathizing with the plight of the grotesquely wealthy brings its ultimate challenge to viewers with HBO's Succession.

The Roys, the media clan at the heart of the show, are more powerful than the Carringtons (Dynasty), chillier and more remote than the Gettys (Trust) and somehow more dysfunctional than the Bluths (Arrested Development). The reptilian characters, their insular existence and a tonal balance that's partway between profane farce and Shakespearean tragedy will prove a tough barrier of entry for some audiences, but those who stick around will find performances to relish and dialogue to savor.

Brian Cox plays Logan Roy, patriarch of an empire that includes TV, newspapers and a movie studio. Approaching his 80th birthday, Logan is contemplating retirement, a process that might be easier if his children and potential heirs weren't a band of backstabbing screw-ups. First in line would be Kendall (Jeremy Strong), a recovering drug addict who conveys limited authority. Middle sibling Roman (Kieran Culkin) is a frivolous goofball who wants to be taken seriously without putting in the work. Daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook) seems sensible and smart, but maybe that's why she has eschewed the family business to work in politics, though her dim-bulb fiance, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), has ambitions of his own.

Other contenders for the throne include Logan's mysterious wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass); Connor (Alan Ruck), his eccentric son from an earlier marriage; and great-nephew Greg (Nicholas Braun), who arrives at Logan's birthday dinner uninvited after a disastrous experience at one of the family theme parks.

Each family member comes with a different agenda, a differently flexible set of loyalties and their own level of dedication to the family, all tested in the seven episodes sent to critics.

It's an hourlong series with a complicated texture that takes some time to acclimate to. It wants you to take the characters and the stakes of their world seriously — a world that's populated with more than a few overt buffoons, and one in which scathing insults have capital on par with the latest stock price.

Succession hails from Peep Show co-creator Jesse Armstrong, whose background as part of Armando Iannucci's writing team on The Thick of It and Veep can be heard in the pungent profanity that punctuates nearly every line. Perhaps not quite as colorful as peak Iannucci, Succession carves its rhythms from liberal application of four-letter words and establishes its character bona fides from the harshness with which they verbally eviscerate each other.

Armstrong also rather notoriously wrote an unproduced screenplay about Rupert Murdoch, and the temptation to compare Succession and the Roys' WayStar to Murdoch's News Corp is an irresistible starting point. Armstrong's actual and specific interest in the media industry and how it operates is occasional, but other than some knowing jokes about the demise of the TV business and some forward-looking buzzwords, it's more a mocking of general corporate environments than a Network-style satire.

That tweaking of white-collar puffery is presumably what lured pilot director Adam McKay, though he isn't working in the playful, fast-moving mode of The Big Short. Even with New York City providing its distinctive grounding and backdrop, the feel of Succession is conspicuously British, favoring a muted, often grungy palette and a jittery verite style heavy on handheld camerawork and protracted, increasingly uncomfortable conversations. Unlike Showtime's Billions, another series currently expecting audiences to empathize with issues facing the upper 1 percent of the 1 percent, Succession only rarely stops to let its characters revel in the opulence of their lives. For all the private helicopters and high-ceilinged palatial Manhattan apartments, it takes a miserabilist approach to the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Playing a modern King Lear, Cox anchors the show with a mixture of bellowing authority and venal, aging insecurity as he decides he isn't ready to be replaced just yet. There's a great contrast and friction among Strong's weaselly Kendall, Culkin's amusingly loopy Roman and Snook's Shiv, who sometimes keeps viewers guessing as to the inevitable way she's damaged. Those three co-stars, plus a nicely oblivious Ruck, have the natural chemistry of bickering siblings and, without overplaying for audience affection, each actor finds pockets of likability.

Macfadyen initially feels miscast as a Midwestern hayseed with ladder-climbing ambitions — Tom's occasionally mentioned Minnesota upbringing is unreflected in Macfadyen's flimsy American accent — but he quickly becomes a welcomely broad source of well-delivered humor. He and Braun have a number of great, funny scenes as point-of-entry characters who haven't been part of this family long enough for their existence to feel natural.

Succession starts off at a deliberate pace, and the nastiness of the characters and the austere chilliness of their interactions don't always click comedically. There's also a very real "Why the heck am I supposed to care?" fatigue that I won't begrudge anybody for feeling. The show geta stronger as the writers recognize the power of just putting these people in a room and letting them be awful to each other. A family Thanksgiving, featuring the arrival of James Cromwell as Logan's estranged brother, sets a template for wryly passive-aggressive tension moving forward. You won't wish yourself a part of this family, you may not emotionally invest in their internal conflicts, and you certainly won't root for anybody, but there's ample entertainment in watching these thin-blooded titans self-destruct.

Cast: Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, Nicholas Braun, Matthew Macfadyen, Hiam Abbass, Alan Ruck
Creator: Jesse Armstrong
Executive producers: Jesse Armstrong, Adam McKay, Frank Rich, Kevin Messick, Will Ferrell, Jane Tranter and Mark Mylod
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)