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HBO's Succession Is a Qualified Success

You'll be rewarded if you can get through the turpitude

Liam Mathews

Succession, HBO's new drama series with a comedy pedigree, is a combination boardroom and family drama spiked with acidic humor that will make you grateful for your own dysfunctional family. You all may be broke and screwed up, but that's better than being a Roy.

The series tells the story of a multibillion-dollar family business, led by media mogul patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), a bastard of the highest order. Logan is 80 years old and in declining health, and his son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is his heir apparent. Kendall plans to modernize the company once he's chairman and CEO by investing in digital media and moving away from the archaic old media properties that Logan is still fond of. Kendall genuinely cares about the company, but he also wants to step out of his father's shadow and get the power and prestige of being the boss. But the old man isn't ready to step down. On Logan's birthday, the day Kendall is set to be announced as the new CEO, Logan decides that he's going to stay on for at least another five years. Not only that, he wants to redraft the family's trust to give more equity to his children's stepmother Marcia (Hiam Abbass).

Kendall is furious, and tries to get his siblings Connor (Alan Ruck), Siobhan (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) to side with him against his father, but they all have their own agendas. Connor, the oldest, doesn't want to be involved in the business; he just wants to stick with the winner. Siobhan -- "Shiv" for short -- also isn't involved in the business, and is pursuing a career as a political consultant, but she still has her own ideas about how the business should be run, especially since her manipulable fiancé Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) is an executive in the theme parks division. And Roman wants to be COO, a job his father offers him before he suffers a stroke that complicates the plan of succession even further.

Kendall takes over as acting CEO and plots how to keep himself there; meanwhile, his father recovers and plans to take back what's his. Alliances shift, names get called and business gets way, way, way too personal. It's basically Arrested Development.

HBO's Succession Looks Like It's Funny, but Not a Joke

The story is inspired by the family business squabbles of media moguls like News Corp's Rupert Murdoch and National Amusements' Sumner Redstone, which gives it a sheen of timeliness. Showrunner Jesse Armstrong wrote an acclaimed screenplay about the succession fight at News Corp called Murdoch that never got produced and probably got expanded into Succession, though Armstrong is careful to note that Logan Roy is not Rupert Murdoch and there are elements of Shakespeare's King Lear, the Scottish Clan Maxwell and even the British royal family woven in.

Armstrong is previously known for his work on sharp-edged British comedies like Peep Show and The Thick of It, as well as Veep, which Armstrong wrote for in Season 1. Veep and Succession also share an executive producer in power whisperer Frank Rich, and Veep and The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci is a clear influence on the new drama. Succession doesn't have as many jokes as Veep (what does?), but it shares a similar interest in exploring the personality defects of powerful people (greed and hubris, mostly), as well as an abiding love of a witty and profane turns of phrase.

Succession, like Veep, also has a quasi-documentary visual style expressed through shaky handheld cameras and herky-jerky zooms. On Succession, the aesthetic is grating, giving scenes a distracting seasick quality. It's like watching a Bourne movie without any action sequences.

It's kind of a tough hang in other ways, too. The characters are all so despicable that it's hard to care about any of them. The Roys are a "nest of vipers," as one semi-estranged member of the family puts it, and the unrelenting cruelty with which they treat each other is tiresome, especially when the wit of the dialogue sags, which happens occasionally in the early episodes. HBO sent seven episodes of the 10-episode first season for review, and the show gets better as it goes on, but early episodes can be tough to get through, especially when they're spending time with bumbling nephew Greg (Nicholas Braun), who the show doesn't figure out what to do with until Episode 4, and Kieran Culkin's Roman, who's such an awful, crude prick that he sucks the air out of every room he's in. You're not supposed to like him, but it's unclear if you're supposed to dislike him this much, too.

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The pilot is directed by Adam McKay, who started with comedies like Anchorman before moving into drama with the excellent financial crisis polemic The Big Short. McKay and Armstrong want to make a work that shows the hollowness of the lives of the loveless superrich, but the level of contempt and outrage that animated The Big Short is hard to sustain over the length of a TV series. You have to want to spend time with these people, and Succession's rich jerks aren't as smart and fun and larger-than-life as the talking Wikipedia articles on Billions, premium cable's other prominent show about the miserable lives of the wealthy. To McKay and Armstrong's credit, though, they don't make being a soulless rich psycho seem cool, which these types of shows and movies usually can't avoid.

What saves Succession is the strength of the performances, especially from Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong, and how much the writing improves as the schemes start paying off and the show settles into a groove. Cox growls and hectors with disappointment etched into his craggy face, playing Logan as a former King Midas who doesn't realize that his ability to turn things into gold has turned into turning things into dung. Strong, in his first lead role, rises to the occasion and makes Kendall into a man who's doing his best with what his father gave him, which is boundless wealth and an unfillable emptiness at his core. He can do that Donald Trump Jr. thing where his face is blank but it still gives away exactly what he's thinking.

Succession won't be for everyone, but if you're in the market for something that will make you grateful for what you have/want to do some class warfare, check it out.

Succession premieres Sunday, June 3 at 10/9c on HBO.