- Series name:Succession
- Creator:Jesse Armstrong
- Rating: 5 StarsClick here to rate 1Click here to rate 2Click here to rate 3Click here to rate 4Click here to rate 5
Unless your career involves saving puppies’ lives or being a food taster at Noma, I think I’ve enjoyed the world’s best job this past week: watching “Succession” from beginning to almost the end of season 3.
Yes, the whitest show with the blackest heart has returned, and it’s just as scabrously funny, sharp and addictive as ever.
In case you’ve only been watching Fox News these past three years (I have some bad news for you about the November 2020 election), HBO’s “Succession” gleefully charts the misfortunes of the Roy family – a ruthless Manhattan media dynasty that has thrown so many people under the bus, it’s a wonder the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is still functioning.
This is a show with two simple rules: Every scene must feature at least one member of the conniving, backstabbing family; and every scene must feature at least one killer line or a look that could kill.
If you’re one of those people who haven’t watched the series because you’ve been told the characters are all dislikeable and have no redeeming features … well, I’m here to tell you that’s true. And it’s what makes the show so magical.
What’s particularly impressive is that, over time, you actually find yourself warming to these self-serving, avaricious souls – I’m generously assuming they haven’t already sold those – until they do something so appalling, so egregious, that you’re back to square one and feeling utter revulsion for them. Then the cycle starts all over again and you vainly hope that, maybe this time, they’ll do the right thing. Of course, they won’t.
It may be easier to find a nest of vipers more amenable than the Roys, who never had a motive that wasn’t ulterior. But damned if they’re not some of the most brilliant characters of the 21st century on either the big or small screen. Exposing trite privilege never felt so much fun.
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Of the 27 hours (all of seasons 1 and 2, and the first seven of nine episodes in season 3) I’ve winced, laughed and gasped at over the past week, there was really just one single episode that jarred for me: the season 1 finale in which the show didn’t so much jump the shark as swerve the stag. (Incidentally, based solely on American television dramas, you could easily believe that most U.S. road accidents are caused by animals standing in middle of a road.) Ninety-six percent is a truly incredible hit rate – and maybe I’m alone in hating that particular plot point.
The roots of “Succession” lie in an ultimately unmade biopic about Rupert Murdoch and his family, by Jesse Armstrong. Film’s loss was very much television’s gain, because there is nothing more entertaining to us NRPIs, to borrow an acronym from “Succession” (it stands for “No Real People Involved,” aka us plebs), than to revel in the foibles of the rich and infamous – and with its copious depictions of debauchery, this is a show with more white lines than outside Bergdorf Goodman in sales season.
Maybe that’s why we’re fascinated by the high-profile, messy Murdoch clan (Rupe’s latest wife is, of course, Jerry Hall), yet would struggle to say a single thing about the Sulzberger family that owns “the gray lady.”
If I had to choose three adjectives to describe the show, I’d opt for Shakespearean, operatic – and I’m sure Kieron Culkin’s Roman Roy would have a quip to insert here about Wagner’s “Ring” – and irresistible. But the thing about the Shakespeare reference is that these characters all recall his most mendacious villains: Richard III, Iago, Lady Macbeth, Regan, Claudius.
One could perhaps make the case for Kendall Roy as Hamlet (which would make Tom and Greg our Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), but that may be a little too kind on him, especially after that dreadful rap song he did for Logan in season 2. He follows that with a ballad in the new season, but I won’t say which song he chooses in classically tone-deaf fashion.
Here’s the thing about being rich
I managed to arrive both early and late to the “Succession” party: I watched season 1 back in 2018, but somehow managed to be too busy to watch season 2 a year later – which I now concede is my biggest mistake since selling those Apple shares back in the early 2000s.
So please allow me to embrace my newfound position as zealot and quote a few of the zingers from the first two seasons, to try to convince any holdouts to come onboard:
■ Tom Wambsgans: “Look, here’s the thing about being rich: It’s fucking great! It’s like being a superhero, only better. You get to wear a costume – but it’s designed by Armani and it doesn’t make you look like a prick.”
■ Roman Roy, about his father Logan: “He can do whatever the fuck he likes. He’s like a human Saudi Arabia.” (Roman just pips “Ted Lasso” character Roy Kent to the title of most foulmouthed Roy on television.)
■ Greg Hirsch: “I can’t believe I’m on a private plane! It’s like I’m in a band – a very white, wealthy band. It’s like I’m in U2.”
■ Ewan Roy: “The Logan Roy School of Journalism. What’s next, the Jack the Ripper Women’s Health Clinic?”
■ Shiv Roy: “What, do you outsource your fuckery? You got your right brain for your TED Talks, your left brain for your killings?”
Having watched 27 episodes back-to-back, it’s perhaps painfully obvious to state this, but “Succession” is a unique show – so much so that I don’t think you can compare the respective seasons.
The show employs the comparatively rare device of picking up each season exactly where the preceding season left off, making this perhaps the classiest, smartest soap opera of all time.
Indeed, if it weren’t for Shiv’s changing hairstyles, you’d never guess you were actually watching a new season, so seamlessly do they flow into each other. That sense of continuity is aided by the strong retinue of writers and directors (though there is some new blood in season 3).
Making his move
I’m reluctant to spill any beans about the new season, suffice to say that it maintains the incredible quality of the first two – and there is an episode midway through that perhaps tops all that came before. Now, that is really saying something when you think of episodes like “Dundee,” when the family returned to the ancestral heartland; “Tern Haven,” when the Roys met another media company almost as messed up as them; and “Sad Sack Wasp Trap,” in which Connor Roy (Alan Ruck) had one of the funniest freak-outs I’ve ever seen (“The butter’s too cold! The butter is too cold!”).
If season 1 introduced audiences to the show with the tagline “Take what’s yours,” as the Roy siblings fought for the crown of their aging media mogul dad (Brian Cox, proving in his mid-70s that you’re never too old to land a career-defining role), season 3 encapsulates proceedings with the simple words: “Make your move.”
That’s what Kendall (Jeremy Strong) did at the end of season 2, of course, and season 3 follows the world’s most brittle man as he goes mano-a-man-childo with his fearsome father.
Poor old “Ken” has endured more highs and lows than any other character in the series, usually literally. He was a broken man for most of season 2, reduced to doing whatever his dad barked at him, often walking around as if being operated by remote control.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that things in Ken World are never far from being on the verge of collapse: The guy is rivaled only by Arctic glaciers for his spectacular public meltdowns. It’s a particularly brilliant performance by Strong to humanize this mess on legs. In a show that’s never short of a brilliant one-liner, it’s notable that he also manages to convey so much inner pain without uttering a word.
As ever, his mental state isn’t aided by siblings Roman and Shiv (Sarah Snook, who delivers such a plausible performance as the entitled American heiress that I had to keep reminding myself that she is actually Australian). “Rome” provides his trademark stream of cynical commentary as he desperately fights to become Daddy’s favorite (one of his few family-friendly putdowns comes when, after being told that Connor has arrived, he deadpans: “Thought I heard a clown car pulling up”).
Shiv, meanwhile, is fighting to prove that in an organization defined by dick-measuring, she may have the biggest of them all.
Add to this those ever-reliable court jesters Tom and Greg (Matthew Macfadyen and Nicholas Braun), still stealing scenes with their “eau de desperation,” plus the corporate dinosaurs surrounding Logan – special shout-out to J. Smith-Cameron’s Gerri, who sums up the raison d’être of every single character when she tells Roman he should always be thinking: “How does this advance my personal position?” – and you truly have a show for the ages, one people should talk about for decades to come.
There are two things I find particularly remarkable about “Succession.” The first is how much mileage it gets from what is ultimately a story operating in a very confined space that was once deemed tellable in a two-hour film: a succession battle focusing on an aging magnate and four toxic offspring who have both mummy and daddy issues.
Like that plinky-plonky (technical term) piano music over the opening credits and repeated throughout the show, it’s the simplistic repetition that ultimately gives the show its meaning as we see different takeover permutations play out.
The mooted hostile takeover of Waystar Royco actually comes to a head in season 3, allowing us to see how the show may perhaps proceed – until that day when Logan Roy retires in a box. What is clear is that internecine feuding will always be the fossil fuel (there’s nothing green about these characters) that propels and powers all.
The second remarkable thing is that, like “Veep” – with which it shares its bitter-and-twisted sense of humor – most of the brains behind this show are British. That’s particularly impressive when you consider that it often plays like an American mash-up of Eugene O’Neill, David Mamet and Mel Brooks.
Creator Jesse Armstrong, lead director Mark Mylod and many of the wonderful writers are veterans of British television (I still can’t quite believe that the man who once directed “Ali G Indahouse” is now capable of the brilliance of “Succession”). One of those writers, Georgia Pritchett, revealed recently that most of the first season was penned in the south London neighborhood of Brixton, which is perhaps as far as it’s possible to get from The Hamptons and still speak vaguely the same language.
I don’t know how their Britishness informed them but I could write an entire column quoting the memorable insults these writers have dreamed up over the past few years: “He did once call me the c*** of Monte Cristo.” “‘The Atlantic’ called you ‘a smirking block of domestic Feta.’” “If your hands are clean, it’s only because your whorehouse does manicures.” And, more short but sweet, “Wokahontas,” “Martin Van Boring” and, my favorite, “Bore Vidal.” It’s brutal humor, but it’s also very, very funny.
I’m now desperate to get my hands on the remaining two epsiodes as quickly as possible to complete the third, triumphant, season. Clearly, I’m going to have to think like a Roy – Murder? Blackmail? Send the idiot cousin? – in order to get my hands on them.
“Succession” is on Hot HBO, Yes Drama, Hot and Yes VOD, Sting TV and Cellcom tv from Monday. It is also on HBO in America on Sundays and HBO Max thereafter.