Culture

Television

Heirs unapparent: ‘Succession’

By Craig Mathieson
The HBO comedy-drama returns for another gleefully toxic season

Succession. Image courtesy of Foxtel

The ink-black American comedy-drama Succession has a juicy, torn-from-the-business-pages concept: the show’s fictional subjects – a media mogul named Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his dysfunctional family – are clearly modelled on Rupert Murdoch and his clan. There are numerous diversions from the official narrative, starting with the caustic Logan being Scottish-born and founding his company, Waystar Royco, from scratch in Canada, but the fundamentals – dispersal of children, the entertainment and cable-news divisions, the take-no-prisoners approach to business – ring true. So does the straight talk. “The issue here, sir,” an unimpressed major new shareholder tells Logan, “is that everyone fucking hates you.”

The first season of Succession was one of the best new shows in 2018, even if Australian audiences had to wait several months to see the HBO series because the rights here reside with Foxtel, the pay television network that’s part of Murdoch’s News Corp. With the second season, which debuted the first of 10 weekly episodes on Monday night, audience demand outranks avoidance, and Succession will screen here within approximately 12 hours of its American broadcast (season one is available online through Foxtel and on DVD). That’s the kind of hard-nosed judgement Waystar Royco would also make, although on the program the bottom line has an emotional cost.

At first glance, Succession is about the unbridled application of power and privilege, with the thrice-married Logan and his four adult children – Connor (Alan Ruck), the at-leisure son from Logan’s first marriage, and the competitive trio of children from Logan’s second marriage, the too-anxious to be cool Kendall (Jeremy Strong), perpetually inappropriate Roman (Kieran Culkin) and the sharp-eyed “Shiv”, short for Siobhan (Sarah Snook) – circling each other with vituperative affection. “What are you waiting for? A kiss?” Logan asks Roman, dismissing his son and chief operating officer. “Fuck off.”

Their entitlement is cheerfully toxic and they act without remorse. Logan talks to the president of the United States about getting his controversial purchase of local television stations pushed through the Federal Communications Commission, Roman instinctively maligns everyone, and Kendall instructs a business associate to falsely smear the female founders of an arts-based start-up who dare to reject his investment – “I’m the asshole who can be your Warhol,” he pitches them – because of his family’s reputation. Being terrible is their default setting; it reassures them.

This by itself is quite entertaining. Succession’s English creator, Jesse Armstrong, is a graduate of Armando Iannucci’s revered Whitehall political satire, The Thick of It, and relocating from London to New York has done nothing to quell his gift for scabrous insults and malignant exchanges. The brutal rejoinder is the program’s equivalent of a sex scene in a soap opera: lusty, frequent, and extravagantly enjoyed. With an air heavy in duplicity and disdain, even acts of affection have a sharply sardonic edge. When Shiv wishes Roman good luck in his COO duties, he is instantly suspicious. For the viewer, the family’s pathology is abrasively attractive, like television catnip.

But if that was all the show offered, then Succession would have topped out as nothing more than a better-written Dallas for the digital age. The enduring strength of the first season is that the wicked wit acts as a kind of acid on the storyline, leaching away the delicious detail to reveal that the supposedly public stakes are in fact deeply private. None of the Roys draw pleasure from the power they wield or its many luxury by-products, and you realise that, to varying degrees, their vast homes and chauffeured cars isolate them in fretful bubbles. Tied to Logan’s side by their respective shares in the family trust that holds their stake in Waystar Royco, his children have been competing for decades in a game he doesn’t intend to allow anyone to win: succeeding him as the company’s head.

In the very first episode, Logan uses the celebration of his 80th birthday to casually torpedo Kendall’s belief that having gone through rehab and paid his corporate dues (apparently this amounts to a year working in the Shanghai office) he’s about to replace his father as chairman and CEO. “It’s my fucking company,” Logan tells a panicked Kendall, and you start to wonder if he views his children as rivals and not heirs. At the end of that episode Logan has a stroke, setting off a power struggle in a plot line lifted from the travails of another media magnate, Sumner Redstone. Logan’s unwillingness to subsequently take a step backwards, or even concede that he’s mortal, eventually leads Kendall to throw his lot in with a takeover bid, only to back out when his personal failings give his father vicious new leverage.

The second season starts with Kendall as a defeated husk, pulled out of rehab in Iceland and sent on business television to discredit his former takeover partners; his talking point is a single sentence, “I saw their plan, but Dad’s plan was better,” as if he’s a 12-year-old giving a class report. Logan is fortified by the brutal takeover battle – a fight to the death gives him life – and with Roman parked to one side (he calls his father “Kim Jong-pop”), the billionaire’s family focus in the new episodes is Shiv, the most capable of his children. Having forged her own successful career as a political consultant – her latest client is a Bernie Sanders–like Democrat, Gil Eavis (Eric Bogosian), whom Logan’s version of Fox News, ATN, despises – Shiv has eluded her father’s grasp. When Logan tells her he wants to hire her and anoint her as his successor, Shiv’s armour falls away. “This is real,” she asks, almost in tears. “This is it,” he tells her, before adding that they can’t announce it publicly just yet.

A parent who draws their children closer in the name of love and legacy only to destroy them is a form of tragedy, and that’s what Succession truly is. Even as ambitious courtiers, such as Shiv’s fiancé, Waystar Royco executive Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), try to rise up, the show is ultimately about a man who cuts down his own children, castigating them for the flaws he helped instil and nurture. The show is horrifyingly funny – it has a distinct DNA that draws both humour and poison from the same source, which only enhances each trait’s power to cut to the core. With its handheld-camera aesthetic and pithy feel for expletives, Succession refuses to be stately. Its defining qualities come at a rush, whether they’re punishing taunts or despairing defeats. Characters that should be mocking outlines of the 1 per cent – “everyone fucking hates you” – are deeply and recognisably human. What a cruel but fitting triumph.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

@CMscreens

Succession. Image courtesy of Foxtel

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