A scene in the first episode of Succession neatly encapsulates the destructive callousness of its central billionaire dynasty, the Roys. During the family’s annual softball game, youngest son Roman Roy – played with terrific smarm and snark by Kieran Culkin – invites the child of a Latino groundskeeper to play. Hit a home run, he tells the boy, and he will give him a million dollars. He even signs a cheque there and then to prove it. It could be a gesture of benevolence from a member of the super-rich to people tasked with cleaning up after them, but things don’t play out that way: the Roys cruelly run the boy out at third base and Roman rips the cheque up in front of him. Later, a Roy employee gets the Latino family to sign a non-disclosure agreement, another underling quietly tidying up their mess.
When Succession debuted last spring, some critics wondered whether anyone would want to watch a fictional representation of an extremely wealthy, predominately male family behaving monstrously when there were so many real-life examples to observe instead. Others asked if it the show’s display of gilded awfulness was really what we needed now. It soon became clear that what we needed and what we wanted were very different things, and Jesse Armstrong’s comedy-drama quickly became the year’s guiltiest pleasure on the small screen, an engrossing prestige TV melodrama of squabbling and secrecy that doubled as a canny critique of bloated end-times capitalism – and one of the year’s funniest show to boot. (Also, the theme tune is unquestionably a banger).
Its premise was unapologetically familiar, with heady notes of King Lear and The Lion in Winter. Brian Cox plays formidable family patriarch Logan Roy, a broadcast magnate who has dominated the media landscape for decades, but is now showing signs of decline. The plan seems to be to hand over the family business to his first-born, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), who is a recovering addict and has little evidence of leadership qualities, aside from his knowledge of a few business buzzwords. Just as press releases are being buffed and the media is being briefed, Logan – sensing his son’s unsuitability for the role – announces he will stick around a little longer. Then promptly has a brain haemorrhage, which doesn’t kill him but leaves him physically frail and mentally erratic, at a time when the company’s future is looking similarly shaky. Cue a tug of war for power between the ailing paterfamilias and the son who is clearly not cut out for the fight.
If Succession was merely a two-hander it would be engaging enough, but Armstrong and his writing team constructed a universe of watchable grotesques: Roman, a Loki in pinstripes; his sister Shiv (Sarah Snook), the family’s token lefty, who might be the most power-hungry of the lot; anarcho-capitalist Connor (Alan Ruck), Logan’s eldest son from his first marriage, who was busy buying up water ahead of the apocalypse; perpetually stoned, idiot cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun). Perhaps best of all is Matthew Macfadyen as Shiv’s social climber husband Tom, a man both gleeful and terrified at the the prospect of entering elite society. At a time when every Hollywood A-lister seems to be slumming it on television, the show’s hidden strength was its lack of a marquee name hogging the limelight. This was a ensemble show in the best sense of the term.
It helped that this cast was being fed some cracking one-liners, with Armstrong delivering perhaps his most acid bon mots since the days of The Thick of It. (“I can promise you that I am spiritually and emotionally and ethically and morally behind whoever wins.”) Yet beneath the bluster and game-playing, there was something pitiable about the Roys. For all their designs on power, they seem to have no idea what to do with it when they get it. They’re paralysed by their own dominance, with no one to confide in, because to reveal a hint of weakness would mean disaster.
But Succession wasn’t meant to be studied – it was meant to be gorged in one sitting. This was prestige TV’s answer to a night-time soap like Dynasty, Dallas or Empire, full of twists and turns, showdowns and power-grabs. Its last five episodes, in particular, ramped up the drama to operatic levels, culminating in an utterly devastating finale that managed to ruthlessly clear the chessboard in anticipation of its second season. We’ve got at least six months to wait for its return. In the meantime we’ll just have to make do with watching the real-life terrible elites instead.