12 Aug 2019

Review: Succession S1

From Widescreen, 5:33 pm on 12 August 2019

Succession should be your next TV obsession, says Dan Slevin.

Brian Cox as patriarch and mogul Logan Roy in Succession.

Brian Cox as patriarch and mogul Logan Roy in Succession. Photo: HBO

Oft-described as “Shakespearean”, the HBO series Succession returns to the screen for its second season today. While my personal opinion is that “Shakespearean” is a stretch – there’s a lot more vivid cursing than iambic pentameter for example – I have come to really enjoy this story of a family that despite, or perhaps because of, having every material advantage remains one of the most dysfunctional ever seen on TV.

Also, as the first season progressed, we discovered – in spite of ourselves – a growing sympathy for the bickering Roy children who are dealing with the fallout of intergenerational trauma and various personality defects. It helps that the dialogue – led by creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong – is consistently fast-paced and witty, the kind of repartee that made The West Wing such a pleasure during its Aaron Sorkin heyday.

Except, that show was populated characters who were essentially good people trying to good in the world. In Succession, they are “people pretending to be people” as Brian Cox’s Logan Roy describes a night at the theatre.

Roman (Kieran Culkin), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Conor (Alan Ruck) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) at the foot of Logan's hospital bed after his stroke.

Roman (Kieran Culkin), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Conor (Alan Ruck) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) at the foot of Logan's hospital bed after his stroke. Photo: HBO

Logan is the family patriarch – the head of the massive media and entertainment company Waystar Roico which he almost single-handedly built from nothing. Like Cox himself, Logan was born in Dundee and is impressively self-made. His children, however, are not self-made or even terribly self-aware and late in season one we get the impression that one of Logan’s psychological blinders might be that he envies how easy his kids have had it.

In season one, Logan suffers a serious stroke and as he lies comatose in his hospital bed, his sons Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) indulge in the first of several attempts to take over the company. His other two children are rebelling in different ways: eldest Conor (Alan Ruck) pretends to be disinterested in the family fortune but finds a way to spend his share on eco-vanity projects in New Mexico and daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook) is a political advisor working for candidates that would give her father another stroke if they could.

Not quite in the inner-circle of the family are Shiv’s fiancée Tom (Matthew McFadyen) and cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), grandson of Logan’s estranged brother Ewan (James Cromwell). Even if you were to put them all together, you still wouldn’t get enough talent to to be able to run the business and Logan knows it. So, and this is where the “Shakespearean” starts to apply, he clings on even though his own approach to business is increasingly unsuited to the modern world.

Logan Roy (Brian Cox) prepares to toast at the wedding of his daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook) to Tom (Matthew McFadyen), flanked by his second wife (Harriet Walter) and his third (Hiam Abbas).

Logan Roy (Brian Cox) prepares to toast at the wedding of his daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook) to Tom (Matthew McFadyen), flanked by his second wife (Harriet Walter) and his third (Hiam Abbas). Photo: HBO

Logan’s third wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbas) is still a slightly mysterious figure by the end of season one – either Logan’s one true confidante and protector or the Lady Macbeth operating behind the throne. Your guess is as good as mine.

Creator Jesse Armstrong is a British comedy writer with unimpeachable credits on shows like Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look and the films Four Lions and In the Loop. He knows that the richer the characters are when you start (and I don’t mean financially although these people are) the easier it is for a team of writers to put words (and other things) in their mouths. And, even though comedy isn’t the only reason for Succession to exist, it has been shepherded into existence by the Gary Sanchez Productions team of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (Vice).

My first exposure to Succession wasn’t that successful. I didn’t come to it until after Game of Thrones and Chernobyl – two of HBO’s heaviest hitters – had worn me out and it felt a little bit lightweight in comparison. But after getting up to date last week, I think that it is now every bit as essential as those shows.

Season one of Succession is streaming on Neon. The first episode of season two arrives today on SoHo and Neon. Dan Slevin interviewed Brian Cox (Logan Roy) about his recent film Rory’s Way here a few weeks ago.

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