For those mourning the loss of Game of Thrones this summer, fear ye not. HBO’s new drama series Succession, which comes from Peep Show’s Jesse Armstrong, is a worthy replacement. The setting is less fantastical, and there are generally less dragons, but the power moves, machinations, twisted family dynamics, and oodles of realpolitik in action are a delight. The series follows the powerful Roy family, led by patriarch Logan (Brian Cox), a Rupert Murdoch, media baron-type who controls an international conglomerate. But from the very beginning, the show sets up the complicated power dynamics between Logan and his children, all of whom seek power and respect, and have very deep-rooted daddy issues.
Succession could easily become a series that, in this second Gilded Age of one-percenter excess, could be a drag. But the smart, often hilarious script and the active camera with a bevy of quick-zooms keep the show on the cusp of comedy. (Adam McKay directs the premiere, while subsequent episode directors include Mark Mylod and Adam Arkin). It’s a drama, let there be no doubt, but there’s enough awkwardness and unexpected reactions from the the wonderfully dastardly family members working to usurp one another that there’s a necessary lightness to it as well. Everyone is despicable, and yet, the story is an easy one to dive into and feel compelled by.
Logan’s children, from a variety of marriages, include eldest son Connor (Alan Ruck), a hippie-dippie rarely-seen presence; Kendall (Jeremy Strong) the scheming president of the family firm who seems to be the heir apparent; Roman (Kieran Culkin), the lackadaisical screw-up; and Logan’s only daughter Siobhan (a.k.a. “Shiv,” played by Sarah Snook), a daddy’s girl who doesn’t work at the company but who has plenty of opinions about what goes on there. The siblings fight constantly, belittling one another, flattering each other to secure loyalty, and constantly creating new alliances as they get offered better deals. The amount of backstabbing in the series is breathtaking on its own, but everything is augmented by clever, lyrical writing peppered liberally with colorful language (an early episode is titled “Shit Show at the Fuck Factory”; of note, Armstrong also wrote for The Thick of It, a British precursor to Veep). The jittery camera also reflects the fact that nothing is ever certain or calm with this family — even in moments of relative peace, there’s always a disaster lurking.
The Roy family’s spouses and tangential family members, like Shiv’s unstable social-climber fiancee Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) or the dunderheaded, failing-upwards cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), or even Logan’s manipulative new wife Marcy (Hiam Abbass), all add even more nuance and chaos to the overall dynamic of the series. But each character (of a very sprawling cast) is so carefully and quickly defined that you get a sense of everyone and what’s at stake by the end of the first episode. Beyond that, Succession is all about the contention, suspicion, and betrayal among them, not to mention just being a maximum dickhead. You love to hate them. It really never gets old (at least, as of the first seven episodes made available to critics, out of an eventual ten). The series is smart, profane, sarcastic, and above all it’s fun.
When a health scare fells the powerful Logan early on, his recovery (and whether or not he really has recovered) plays a major part in upending expected hierarchies within the family, and it makes sense that every decision made regarding Logan and the Roys is consequential because of how rich and powerful he is. But Logan is also unwilling to give up his power, meaning that there isn’t really anyone fit to take over from him — once they do, even temporarily, it’s clear that no one else knows what they’re doing, and the risks they take the establish themselves are often excruciating.
To illustrate, there’s a scene about midway through the season that could not be more bland to a new viewer who happened to tune in; it’s a board meeting with a slow roll call and a stalling of the agenda. And yet, because of the way the show has built up to this moment and the consequences of a fallout, it’s one of the most anxiety-inducing sequences on TV this year. What’s even more impressive about it is the way it illustrates how the show makes viewers choose sides and feel invested in the happenings of this family and their firm, even though every single person involved with these decisions is a blaggard.
Like with Peep Show and The Thick of It, Armstrong and his writing team make us care deeply — not emotionally, but out of a perverse interest — about what these fools are going to do next. There’s another layer to it here, with the Roy family’s wealth and their treatment of it (and those around them because of it), that makes these characters particularly odious. Yet at the same time, it heightens both the dramatic stakes and the comedy that much more. The joy of seeing them all plot against one another and lay traps and sometimes fall into them themselves often rivals the best machinations of Lannisters, Targaryens, or a Littlefinger. Most of the characters in Succession suffer from a litany of faults: arrogance, greed, ignorance, cowardice, selfishness, delusions of grandeur, but the show has a potent combination of virtues that makes up for these sins. Ultimately it’s less about who will rule, but what it will cost to see them get there. Pass the gilded popcorn.
Succession premieres Sunday, June 3rd on HBO.