Succession review – family saga shows lifestyles of the rich and the ruthless

The Big Short director Adam McKay and Peep Show creator Jesse Armstrong have joined forces for a blackly comic melodrama series with excellent performances

If King Lear was updated for 2018, with the monarchy exchanged for a media empire, and Shakespearean soliloquies replaced with f-bombs and dick jokes, it might look like Succession, HBO’s stylish new drama about a dysfunctional, filthy-rich family called the Roys.

But in the Roys’ Manhattan world of motorcades, chartered helicopters and dutiful chauffeurs who tell their passengers they’re “the man”, there’s not much use trying to prove you love the patriarch most. Instead the Roy family, for whom every conversation has a pretense of self-interest, speak mostly in power grabs and insults, with each heir hoping to succeed the 80-year-old Logan as the boss of Waystar Royco, the family’s Murdochesque media conglomerate.

Created by Jesse Armstrong, whose credits include Peep Show, The Thick of It and In the Loop, Succession stars Brian Cox, who fortuitously played King Lear at the National Theatre. This time he’s Logan Roy, the curt, unflappable mogul who can make John Paul Getty look compassionate. The series opens on Roy’s birthday, where he surprises his three children by telling them he won’t, in fact, be stepping down as CEO and chairman of Waystar, a decision that sets the stage for the dog-eat-dog dynamic between siblings who are ruthless and spoiled, if also strangely likable.

Jeremy Strong, as “the heir with the flair” Kendall Roy, is an impressive lead, possessed of a toxic masculinity complex to rival that of Patrick Bateman or Gordon Gekko. Before work he aggressively raps to the Beastie Boys’ Open Letter to NYC, takes a single toke of a cigarette and then stamps it out, and at one point tells a colleague he’ll “stuff your mouth with so much money you’re going to shit golden figurines”. Beneath the machismo, though, is a fragile prodigal son, recently back from rehab and still acclimating to the dick-measuring contest that is venture capitalism.

If Kendall is cut from the same bespoke cloth as his father, his younger siblings Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) are funnier, only slightly less vulgar foils, ridiculing and double-crossing each other for sport (and power and money).

As Roman, Culkin is a breath of fresh air and comic relief, even if the satire’s sometimes so black you cringe. At a family softball game, for instance, he asks a nearby child to pinch-hit, promising him a million dollars if he hits a home run. When the boy’s tagged out at home plate, Roman rips up the check and gives him a shred of it. “Really good effort,” he says. “So, take this back to your life. It’s a quarter million. Enjoy.”

Alan Ruck, Kieran Culkin and Sarah Snook in Succession.
Alan Ruck, Kieran Culkin and Sarah Snook in Succession. Photograph: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Because of Amstrong’s crude, voluble characters, and the presence of Adam McKay (who directs the pilot), Succession has echoes of Veep and The Big Short, with zippy, foul-mouthed, verbal ping-pong matches and handheld camerawork that’s naturalistic, almost resembling a documentary. Everyone is fucking each other, or getting fucked, or using the word “dude” as a term of both condescension and endearment. “I suck at the whole corporate flirt thing,” says Roman. “I prefer to just lube up and fuck.” When Shiv tells her brother he smells like “Date Rape by Calvin Klein”, I even (incorrectly) thought I’d heard that joke from the mouth of Selina Meyer herself.

There are noteworthy performances beyond the Roy bloodline, too. Matthew Macfadyen, as Shiv’s oafish husband Tom, is amusingly corny when he gifts his father-in-law a Patek Philippe watch: “It’s incredibly accurate,” he says. “Every time you look at it it tells you exactly how rich you are.” Playing Marcia, Logan Roy’s third wife, Hiam Abbass is a quiet, mysterious addition to the ensemble. And the great J Smith- Cameron does a bang-up job as Gerri, a long-serving Waystar executive who, as one character speculates, “knows where the bodies are buried”.

While the pilot occasionally misses its beats, playing some moments as bombshells before actually orienting the audience or the characters, Succession picks up the pace with the second episode, a kind of bottle installment that finds the Roy family holed up in a hospital waiting room after Roy suffers a stroke.

One thing the series understands better than other sagas about rich family dynasties, like the Getty-based FX drama Trust, is that the characters are far more interesting together than they are apart. It’s their internecine struggles, rather than their separate lives, that reveal the extent to which money and power fractures families. And although Armstrong’s script has been gestating for about a decade, it’s hard to see how this story of three vainglorious children and a cold, thrice-married businessman from Manhattan’s top brass could be more timely.

  • Succession begins on HBO on 3 June and in the UK on Sky Atlantic later this year


Jake Nevins

The GuardianTramp

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