Writer Jesse Armstrong has come a long way since penning gags for a breakfast TV show and working on a flop British version of “That Seventies Show” some 20 years ago. He has subsequently been involved in some of the smartest, funniest British series and films this century (including “Peep Show,” “The Thick of It,” “In the Loop,” “Four Lions” and one of my favorite episodes of “Black Mirror” – season one’s “The Entire History of You”).
But we should be grateful that a film screenplay he wrote nearly a decade ago – a biopic of Aussie media magnate and all-around bastard Rupert Murdoch – never made it to the big screen, because then it would have deprived us of the delights of his latest TV show, “Succession.” The 10-part HBO series is as much about the likes of Sumner Redstone (the National Amusements head who inspired the show’s title by once telling a reporter he didn’t need to worry about succession plans as he had no intention of dying), and the Roberts (Comcast) and Mercer (Breitbart) families as it is about the Murdochs. But it is also impossible not to watch the show without thinking about the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – a connection we are presumably meant to draw given the physical similarities of one of the show’s main characters to a certain Donald Trump Jr. I even heard a critic say they couldn’t watch the show anymore because it succeeded in making them feel sorry for Trump Jr.
I also saw a play in the West End last year – “Ink” by James Graham – that proved extremely disconcerting in the first act, since it made you root for a young, charismatic Murdoch when his upstart British Sun newspaper was taking on the establishment in 1960s Britain. Luckily, normal service was resumed in the second act and you could go back to viewing “Rupe” as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the man whose newspapers propped up successive right-wing U.K. governments and ultimately played a pivotal part in coaxing Brits to vote to leave the European Union. (Incidentally, Benedict Cumberbatch is set to appear soon in a Brexit TV drama, playing one of the architects of the Leave campaign.)
Watching “Succession” and the venal yet equally pathetic Roy family, it is definitely possible to have some sympathy for the devil. Even if you may not actually want to invite any of these grasping, desperate characters around for dinner, you might feel a smidgen of pity for people trying to walk in their overbearing father’s footsteps while wearing clown shoes. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that very little flourishes growing up in the shadows.
Armstrong explained to Forbes in June that “Succession” aims to show how “the dysfunction inside a family can spill out into dysfunction in the rest of the world,” and how the current media climate has contributed to the likes of a Trump presidency and Brexit. The show has clearly struck a chord, already receiving a green light for a second season at HBO – and I will gleefully follow the adventures and misadventures of the Roy family. Think “Dynasty,” but where the characters trade insecurities rather than securities or oil.
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Although “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci is not involved in “Succession” per se, his inspiration is felt throughout – especially in the frequent barbs that fly between characters (“Dickless Dickleby!” could have come straight from the set of “Veep,” for example). What Armstrong and his team of (mainly British) writers have successfully done is to create a kind of corporate “Addams Family” in which a bunch of screwed-up siblings compete for acceptance and filial love from their monstrous, ailing patriarch.
Wolf at the helm
The show actually starts with the sound of snoring, but in every other aspect this is a dream opening: We hear an old man waking up, walking around his home and, becoming disoriented, urinating on the carpet having mistaken it for a toilet. This senile old man is Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the 80-year-old head of Waystar Royco, a media empire whose tentacles extend across four continents, 50 countries and three divisions in entertainment, news and resorts. Think Fox, but with a wolf at the helm.
Logan has four (kinda) grown-up children: There’s Trump Jr. lookalike Kendall (Jeremy Strong), a division president and “heir with flair” who believes he is about to inherit his retiring father’s crown – despite clearly lacking the old man’s killer instinct. (In a brilliant moment early on, a colleague emasculates Kendall by asking him, “Do you wanna call your dad?”) There’s Roman (Kieran Culkin), an artistic type with zero people skills who previously walked away from the family business but remains on the board; sister Shiv (Sarah Snook), who’s a shareholder but clearly has good business instincts; and laid-back Connor (Alan Ruck), the eldest of the siblings but with a young girlfriend and happy to take on an observant family role (“I am a UN White Helmet”).
Then there are a whole host of significant (and insignificant) others, including Kendall’s warm-hearted ex, Rava (Natalie Gold); the siblings’ unreadable stepmother, Marcia (Nazareth-born Hiam Abbass), who appears to be devoted to her media tycoon husband; and, best of all, Shiv’s hapless boyfriend, Tom – British actor Matthew Macfadyen, displaying a comic touch rarely seen in his work on the likes of “Ripper Street” and ”Spooks,” aka “MI6,” as he tries to ingratiate himself into the family. Oh, and there’s a dim-witted pothead cousin, Greg (Nicholas Braun), floating around the family trying to save his career.
The show is full of venomous one-liners, such as when Shiv recoils after smelling brother Roman’s cologne (“What is that? ‘Date Rape’ by Calvin Klein?”) or when Kendall inquires whether his ex is seeing someone else (“I’m just hoping the new one doesn’t leave coke lines smeared all over the kids iPads,” shoots back Rava).
Then there are the very “Veepy” interchanges when characters say things like “I’m not declining. I’m just not clining” or “Who did the broach?” when told a subject matter had been broached, or – my favorite – “Words are nothing – just complicated air flow.” The sharp script is only part of the show’s joy – although you do have to accept that you are watching a bunch of self-centered, conceited folk if you are to get full enjoyment out of the series. This is a show about deeply flawed characters: 1 percenters with 99 problems – from the Scottish émigré Logan Roy, struggling to relinquish the company reins (watching Cox’s performance here serves as a welcome reminder that he brilliantly played another monster, Hannibal Lecktor (aka Lecter), in the 1986 movie “Manhunter”) to the bitchy, egotistical Roman, who eviscerates those around him without ever demonstrating that he has any other skill.
HBO has struggled in recent years with its own succession plans, failing to find a long-term replacement for its hour-long, dark comedy-tinged dramas like “Big Love” and “Six Feet Under.” Alan Ball’s “Here and Now” earlier this year and 2016’s “Vinyl” were just the latest in a long line to fail to make the grade. Finally, though, it has struck gold here. “Succession” may be a rather cold-blooded, even heartless presentation of a dysfunctional family, but it is still enormous fun to share in the misfortunes of members of the Fortune 500.