Have the very rich ever been so powerful? I guess it all depends on how you measure “riches” and “power,” like we can all agree the ancient Pharaohs had a grand old time. But the god-emperors of yore couldn’t claim tangible ownership of land around the world, didn’t fly private across oceans to make deals (official or unofficial) with whatever petty bureaucrat or looney-tunes populist is running whatever superpower this government cycle. Politicians come and go, but money has no term limits. Dictators rise and fall, and never get invited to the Met Gala.
HBO’s Succession sets itself in the one-est percentile of this magnificent one percent. It’s a family drama where the family is more like a globalized consortium, living in that magical part of Manhattan where everyone is constantly flying in or out from somewhere, possibly they don’t really live anywhere (but they could buy a house everywhere). Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is the family patriarch, a titan on the verge of retirement. He runs what we’re told is the fifth largest media conglomerate in the world, is a “pal to Prime Ministers, truth teller to Presidents.” When someone explains that “the socioeconomic health of multiple continents is dependent on his wellbeing,” they’re only half-joking. You think to yourself: Those poor continents.
Logan’s also losing it, a little. Can’t blame an old man for that. The premiere begins on Logan’s 80th birthday. His children arrange themselves into familiar patterns of devoted ambition. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is next in line to run the company, so he thinks. Sneering brother Roman (Kieran Culkin) has big ideas, is the kind of cad who spends hours conceiving new vocabulary for describing his awesomeness. He’ll say things like “My face is drowning in p—y!” You think to yourself: Those poor p—–s.
Their sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) has some kind of job in politics, and is…I’m sorry, “Shiv”? Shiv. Shiv. Her full name is Siobhan, so I guess that’s one potential nickname? So cool. Shiv. Anyhow, Shiv is some kind of political-type, which in the five episodes I’ve seen involves her talking about all the political work she’s doing when the show ignores her. And these younger Roys have a half-brother, Connor (Alan Ruck), a passive man-child desperate to prove how little he’s seeking approval.
In the premiere, Kendall learns he’s not next in line to run the company. So who will take control of the company?The family layout I just described bears a more-than-striking resemblance to the Bluths of Orange County, with Logan’s latest wife Marcia (Hiam Abbass) filling the Jessica Walter-as-Lucille role of “maternal figure no one can trust.” I’m tempted to say that Succession is just Arrested Development but not funny. Unfortunately, that already suddenly describes Arrested Development. And the Lear Family soap opera is a high TV tradition, the declining patriarch and his squabbling next of kin. Think Empire, think Dynasty. Think Dirty Sexy Money, without the first two parts.
In broad strokes, the Roy family suggests some obvious real-world analogues: The wealthy old man who wants to hold onto his company, the children battling for power, the general message that this old-ish media company is having a problem pivoting towards the future. Any resemblance to real-life media tycoons is strongly encouraged, and Succession looks much better when you decide the show’s trying to prove the Murdoch family is boring as hell.
But comparisons to other families, real and imagined, could be unintentional. Succession is its own disappointing creation, imbalancing awful broad comedy with awful mawkish drama: Hooker jokes and health scares, lame bro-banter alongside instrumental montages of sensitive thought-staring. The actors all got different memos. Doleful Strong is in a morose social comedy, struggling through divorce and repressed addiction. Cox is incongruously theatrical, full-fledged CEO Lear. Kieran has been America’s Best Culkin for most of this century, but he delivers lines like he’s waiting for a laugh track.
That’s a weirdly common vibe with Succession, which struggles hard to blend snarkmonster laughlines with genuine woe-for-my-crazy-family pathos. Nephew Greg (Nicholas Braun), an ambitious new arrival, is first spotted vomiting through a circus-mascot mask. Broad bits like that tend to wave-crush up against Succession‘s attempts toward big-business authenticity, board meetings and angry talk about why it’s more important to own websites than newspapers, power plays in the hospital. The show’s lineage suggests sharp comedy instincts. Creator Jesse Armstrong worked on the great British politi-com The Thick of It. Producer Adam McKay (who directed the first episode) made splendid Will Ferrell comedies before finding a midcareer new gear as, like, Funnier Oliver Stone with 2015’s The Big Short and the upcoming Dick Cheney biopic. It feels like a fizzy half-hour sitcom got lost somewhere in Dramedy Forest.
The weird merger of satire and sensitivity results in an atonal misfire. At various points in the early episodes, two different Roy family members pull out their, err, Dick Cheney, in their office, during work hours. Attempts towards humor are just outright unfunny: “Ever hear of loyalty?” “Wasn’t he one of the seven dwarfs? Or a rapper in Wu Tang?” Oof. There’s the regular schedule, familiar to any Gossip Girl viewer, of lavish parties and boozy family dinners. Something new, and particularly miserable: In the fourth episode, two different members of the extended Roy clan find themselves in #MeToo-adjacent subplots. But it’s an accident both times—he didn’t realize he forced his underling into a date, he swears! You’re left with the feeling of a series willfully missing its own most interesting points. C