When I reviewed HBO's dysfunctional family drama (that's actually a comedy) Succession in June, I made it a point to mention that though the show starts a little shaky, it gets better as it goes on. What I failed to fully express is how much better it gets as it goes on. I started out feeling like "I don't think I want to hang out with these jerks" and ended up thinking "I hate these people so much and I want to watch them all the time." As it hurtled toward its stunningly dark and inevitable Season 1 climax, it had one of the biggest single-season glow ups I've ever seen, an observation I'm not alone in making.
There are two factors that gassed up the show's rise: one, it took a few episodes for the writers to figure out exactly how to use the characters; and two, it took viewers awhile to get tuned into Succession's very particular frequency.
In early episodes, Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), the outrageously douchey youngest son of Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox), and Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun), the cousin trying to weasel his way into the core of the family business, were the wrong kind of obnoxious. Roman was too abrasive and Greg was too dopey, plus he didn't fit into the story yet. But after a few episodes Roman got tweaked to be 10 percent less reflexively nasty and 10 percent more rationally self-interested, which anchored him and made his loathsomeness funny, instead of just grating. And by the time Greg got put to work shredding evidence of horrible corporate malfeasance, he was an integral member of the ensemble.
Other characters were there all along, they just took some time to ripen, especially Matthew McFadyen's beta male bully brother-in-law Tom Wamsgans (who combines with Cousin Greg to form the funniest duo on TV) and Jeremy Strong's deeply f-ed up failson Kendall Roy. The more you watch, the more you realize Strong is giving one of the best performances on TV. He's doing pitiable and despicable at the same time. It's a complex and subtle performance where you watch him stuff every emotion down and make his face go blank except for the pain behind his eyes. It's a high degree of difficulty, and Strong nails it every episode. There are so many levels to Kendall, and they're all bleak.
The other thing about why Succession took some time to warm up is that there's nothing on TV like it tonally, so it takes some getting used to. It doesn't glorify wealth, and since that's not something we ever see on TV, it takes awhile to realize that the show is not on the side of the wealthy. Billions, a show Succession somewhat resembles, has a more conflicted relationship with wealth. Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) is a monster, but he's charismatic and his life is exciting and the show films his luxe homes and five-star food almost pornographically. Succession, meanwhile, is almost socialist in its contempt for the super rich. They're all morally bankrupt scumbags who view human life as expendable, as the finale makes abundantly clear with a scene that will make you wish the show's Bernie Sanders analogue Gil Eavis (Eric Bogosian) could exile all the Roys to Siberia. Its condemnation of the power structures of capitalism makes Succession one of two explicitly left wing shows on TV (the other is Mr. Robot, which is about trying to destroy capitalism). It's almost impossible to get ideas this far left on TV -- even HBO is advertising a product -- so the fact that this show exists at all is borderline miraculous. It's showing an underrepresented perspective. Succession is working to normalize the idea that the rich are not like us; they're worse!
I call Succession a "cult hit" because it's really not for everyone. The characters are all irredeemably awful people, and the humor is vicious and profane. It's like Veep but darker (Succession creator Jesse Armstrong wrote one episode of Veep and many episodes of creator Armando Iannucci's British Veep precursor The Thick of It).
If you watch TV to relate to characters you care about, look elsewhere. But if you're excited about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and well-crafted insults are music to your ears, you need to watch this show.
Succession has been renewed for Season 2. All episodes can be streamed on HBO Go or HBO Now.