Succession Season 1
Creator: Jesse Armstrong
Starring: Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, Alan Ruck, Matthew Macfadyen
Review by Michael Walls-Kelly
“You are a fucking nobody.”
Sometimes it can be satisfying to watch a show filled with characters you hate. There are lots of TV shows I love because I care about the characters. But there’s a certain amount of satisfaction to those few shows that make you invested in the lives of characters who are almost wholly evil.
That’s what Succession, airing Sundays on HBO, is to me. It’s a series created by Jesse Armstrong, a writer for Peep Show and The Thick of It, and produced by Adam McKay, the director of The Big Short. Both of them are masters at writing total assholes.
Succession is the story of the family that owns a media empire. Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is the patriarch of the family. He’s a mix between Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch, with a firm grip on his company and his family. His children include the heir apparent, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the fuck-up party boy, Roman (Kieran Culkin), a political consultant, Siobhan (Sarah Snook) and his oldest son, Connor (Alan Ruck), who half-asses his way through his own projects.
The crux of the series is the interplay between the family members and how truly and thoroughly growing up with an unimaginable amount of money can fuck somebody up. There’s also the intrigue of a huge conglomerate making different plays to keep itself on top. It’s an HBO version of Billions. Better in some regards (cinematography, budget, humour) and worse in others (Billions knows it’s a total cartoon. I’m not quite sure whether this show does). There’s room enough for both of them. Hell, they both even found roles for the amazing Eric Bogosian.
Jeremy Strong’s Kendall is the centre of the show, for the most part. Even though Brian Cox is the big name in the cast he’s very much above the day-to-day squabbling, though not above the occasional vindictive act, so he’s a little more inscrutable. Strong is a great actor. I wouldn’t be surprised if McKay recommended him for the role based on his work in The Big Short. Strong can so easily ooze douchebag. He has a quality about him. He absolutely knows he’s putting on an ‘80s power-tie, coke-in-the-bathroom performance because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re the big swinging dick at a large corporation.
Snook and Ruck have a lot more work to do, playing characters a little more separated from the family business. Luckily, Snook is a great find and Ruck is always dependable. Both characters get developed further as the season goes on, both of them displaying the ruthlessness of their father and also how deeply this lifestyle has damaged them.
The season standout is probably Culkin’s character. Roman is a stereotypical fuck-up younger brother, and Culkin pulls it off perfectly. I don’t think the show has quite centred where they want Roman to be as a character. Is he a truth teller? A puckish imp? Comic relief? The dark heart of the show? Culkin and the writing do end up making him more sympathetic than you’d expect. He does easily the worst and most heartless thing of any of the family members in the first episode. I’d like to see them nail down what Roman is all about in a second season.
Two other standouts are Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), Shiobhan’s desperate partner and an executive at the company, and Greg (Nicholas Braun), a stoner fuck-up who we first see throwing up in a costume at a Disneyland-a-like who also happens to be Logan Roy’s great nephew. They bring such different dynamics to the table. Their inclusion in any family gathering — which there are a lot of — are always welcome. Greg ingratiating himself with the family. The family treating him like an annoying but harmless fruit fly, are some of the funniest moments of the first few episodes.
The writing and direction are solid, very similar to The Big Short but without the crackerjack editing of Hank Corwin. Succession is solid entertainment, but here isn’t much deeper beyond the palace intrigue. It’s a perfect showcase for these top-notch actors, as well as guest stars like Bogosian and James Cromwell. There needs to be an extra something to bring it to the next level. Armstrong and McKay’s hatred of these types of people is clear, and deserved, and funny, but shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Mad Men made detestable people relatable. I’m not saying it’s easy for a show to reach those ranks, but with some tweaking Succession might actually have a chance.
Verdict: Watch it! Anybody who enjoys prestige drama or Adam McKay’s humour from The Big Short will enjoy Succession. It’s a solid B or B+ season of television, consistently funny and entertaining to watch and a great showcase for a number of talented actors. The problem is that very few episodes stick with you or even require you to delve deeper within the text or within yourself.