Written by Jesse Armstrong
Directed by Adam McKay
Original Air Date: 3rd June, 2018
Television has frequently been ripe with stories and ongoing serials about the rich and powerful. The 80’s was a decade that revelled in prime time soaps about families with surnames such as Ewing and Colby and their affluent lifestyles, offering audiences glimpses into how the one per-cent lived without much of the way of criticism beyond having maybe one or two characters who were somewhat anti-heroic to the point that they invited punishment whenever the writers demanded it.
Not for nothing was one of the most asked questions of that decade ‘who shot JR?’.
Jesse Armstrong has made his career writing about terrible people doing terrible things. His Channel 4 comedy series Peep Show, on top of its famous POV filming techniques, was one of those dark UK homegrown sitcoms that Channel 4 has been frequently great at producing and which revelled in the horrible behaviours of its central characters, brilliantly and uncomfortably putting the audience right into the headspace of its characters as it did so.
Into the second half of the Trump presidency arrived Succession, Armstrong’s HBO series which premiered after having contributed to not only the cable channel’s Veep, but also its creator Armando Iannucci’s other brilliantly embittered political comedy from the either side of the Atlantic, the BBC’s The Thick of It.
Combining a tale of a rich family that on the one hand feels like a twenty first century equivalent to the Ewing and the Colby’s, combined with a darkly acerbic and embittered satirical analysis similar to his work on Iannucci’s twin masterpieces, Succession sets its stall out early on with a sequence depicting familial patriarch Logan Roy (a superb Brian Cox) in a state of what seems to be mental confusion, urinating all over his carpet while clearly not knowing where he is or how he got there, the only thing for certain being that his residence is one that clearly belongs to someone who is well-off financially.
This is then followed by our first glimpse of son Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the successor to the throne so to speak (to borrow a phrase of sorts from that other HBO smash hit of the last few years) and who finds himself at the mercy of what looks like an assured business deal going wrong.
His singing along to the Beastie Boys in the backseat of his limousine, his attempts at looking cool with hip corporate speak and use of the word ‘dude’ makes Kendall an interesting type of little boy lost amongst a sea of grown-ups in the business world. Judging from the wonderful credit sequence that feels inspired by the David Fincher film The Game, it’s clear that Kendall has been primed and raised to be the heir to the empire but is wholly unprepared for it despite how confident he is in his own abilities.
The backdrop of Logan’s birthday and subsequent party functions as a brilliant narrative set up that allows the series to introduce its core cast of familial characters, giving the audience a sense of the cutthroat world that they inhabit and the manner in which they behave within it. There’s a devilishly vindictive quality to so much of the interactions amongst the core cast, and that it arrived in a period of time when the actions of the Murdoch dynasty and that of the family of the then-President of the United States were coming in for well-deserved criticism means that this is a world away from the glossy prime time fantasies that Dallas and Dynasty delivered throughout the 1980s.
It fits into the mould of series’ such as Veep brilliantly, but instead of throwing everything into a relentless thirty minute comedy, this instead has the feel of a flowing witty Shakespearean drama, with dynasties, familial disappointments, embittered arguments and schisms at the centre of everything, while the pacing is wonderfully controlled. Things are never at breakneck speed, nor are they too slow.
The birthday celebration centrepiece at the heart of Armstrong’s teleplay makes for some brilliantly scripted television, and with Adam McKay on directing duties, it truly feels like the definition of cinematic television, and makes for a brilliant companion piece to the director’s The Big Short and Vice, similar tales of capitalism and the elite with considerable political power running amok doing terrible things.
This is slick, well made and so much of it feels genuinely high-end, with everything complimenting each other wonderfully; the performances, the direction, the photography, the Nicholas Britell score (and what a brilliant piece of music that theme music is), with its coldly lush depictions of New York, not to mention that grandiose sequence involving the family flying no less than three helicopters over that skyline.
The writing and performances make no apologies that these characters are somewhat irredeemable in many ways, and that they’re privileged jerks who would kill each other just to get their own way. Such a storytelling move may not be to everyone who might want at least one character to root for, but like Veep and The Thick of It, there seems to be little of redeeming value here. It’s a shark-infested world. In some ways we might be prone to sympathize with Kendall, but then one is reminded that financially he’s still going to be okay even without being made king of the Roy empire. This is after all someone who, like the rest of his family, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
Shiv (Sarah Snook) and her husband Tom also appear to be on the side of sympathy at first glance, but then Tom (an enjoyable performance from Matthew MacFadyen) shows a vindictive sense of humour when it comes to his interactions with the newly arrived Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) whose slacker nature and fish-out-of-water nervousness at being thrown into the deep end of the family’s orbit makes him somewhat of a frontrunner for sympathy.
The culmination of the sequence that introduces him, vomiting through the eye slots of the cuddly character he is playing at one of the theme parks, feels like a bizarre and hilariously horrible visual metaphor for how the family whose den he is walking into approaches their business and life, even when cuddly kids characters are involved. Then again, this is a HBO drama about rich and entitled privileged egotists which leaves one questioning how long such a character will be able to remain truly innocent in this world.
The portrayal of such a dog-eat-dog world, where even familial loyalties are something to be bartered and negotiated with, makes this an enticingly funny prospect of the pitch-black variety. At the heart of everything here is Brian Cox as the family patriarch who isn’t above screwing his own children out of elements of the family business, firing employees who have shown nothing but loyalty to him and even chastising his Kendall when he is on the verge of tears. It’s a scene where toxic masculinity is personified in a single argument.
There are so many brilliant layers to Cox’s performance. We can see the monster of a man that has taken no prisoners to get to where he is. He has no time for the studying of business that he mocks Kendall for doing during their argument, but the build-up to the stroke that is going to incapacitate him from the end of this episode onwards clearly is leaving him vulnerable in ways he never has been before. That ‘Celebration’ opens with him urinating on the carpet in a state on confusion seems apt for a character who has probably made his mark metaphorically in such a manner all his life.
If there’s any scene here that perhaps encompasses what Succession is about and boils it down to a single moment and form, it has to be when the family moves the birthday celebration to the country to play softball and younger son Roman (a darkly funny Kieran Culkin) offers a million dollar cheque to the young son of the working class groundskeeper if he makes a home run. When he doesn’t, Roman rips the cheque up in front of him, offering one torn up part as representative of a quarter of a million. It’s an incredibly vindictive scene that manages to be simultaneously shocking, darkly hilarious, and horrible all at the same time. Like all horrible things, you want to look away, and yet you can’t at the same time.
In some respects, Succession has a lot in common with Arrested Development, but where that series threw itself into increasingly surreal running jokes and comedy with which to make fun of its privileged family, the humour and interactions here are of a fiercely more darker variety. As we’ve watched dynasties such as those with surnames such as Murdoch, Trump and Maxwell manipulate the media with their empires and even being accused of destroying lives in the process, there is a genuine sense of injustice that leaks through so much of the writing here. Even if the Roy clan are fictional, the comparisons are inescapable.
These are the most horrible people imaginable, doing the most terrible things and there’s nothing that can be done about it, except to shake hands to those they hurt and say, ‘good effort’.