The Tragic Rich in ‘Succession’
(First of three parts)
Despite requests from readers, I long resisted reviewing the hit HBO series “Succession” for one simple reason: no character is likable, even if the show’s three seasons so far are irresistible. Revolving around Scottish-American media mogul Logan Roy (played superbly by Brian Cox) and his children, the series was reputedly modeled by British showrunner Jesse Armstrong after media dynasties founded by Rupert Murdoch (News Corp., Fox News), Sumner Redstone (Viacom, CBS) and Robert Maxwell (Mirror Group).
“We are working to reflect the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be,” Armstrong tells critic Rebecca Mead in “The New Yorker.” “There’s another sort of show in which edging the world a bit towards what one would want it to be doesn’t hurt the show at all, whereas our show is critical-satirical—we need to portray that very particular and very powerful bit of the world it is concerned with quite precisely.”
To attain verisimilitude, Armstrong and his writers read “The Financial Times” and biographies of media titans. They hired consultants such as Gary Shteyngart, who described the lives of the New York elite in his book “Lake Success” and Tom Holland, who studied tyrannical Roman emperors like Caligula.
“The show is so unsettling, in part, because it offers no vantage points … [aside from] a curdled view of humanity,” says Mead, who concludes that the show is “driven not by a voyeuristic fascination with the rich—or by a righteous desire to expose the perfidies of inequity—but by a wish to tell … a more universal story about power and family relations and to show how those forces can torque an individual’s humanity.” (Spoilers follow.) Race to the topThe first season of “Succession” is built around—what else, succession—the main dilemma facing family businesses. Who among his children will succeed Logan at Waystar Royco? Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) is supposedly the heir apparent, yet his self-righteousness masks self-destruction (drugs, booze, women). His sister Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook), at first, appears to rise above the fray to make her own way in politics. Unfortunately, as the series progresses, Shiv becomes as power-hungry as the rest of her siblings.
“Shiv is a passionate, driven, smart person who I think occasionally gets glimpses of the way that her life could be integrated and whole and truthful,” Armstrong tells Mead. “But [the characters] are really hard to keep hold of, especially when they brush up against other people … She hasn’t got very good facilities for compromise, or for taking into account other people’s feelings.”
Under a nihilist exterior, youngest child Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) tries to display loyalty to his father in a kind of twisted love (not that Logan truly cares for anyone but himself). Roman’s can-do attitude while being kidnapped in the second season shows surprising spunk, but again, his desire to one-up his siblings rears its ugly head.
Eldest child Connor (Alan Ruck) might be the worst one yet, a pseudo-libertarian bum with a sense of entitlement so grandiose that he serves as cautionary warning to business families.
Logan, of course, hangs on to power and the series’ second season rides on prevailing sentiments against sexual harassment to make this the centerpiece of the plot. Cover-ups of sexual assaults in a cruise ship run by the family business lead to a congressional investigation that threatens the conglomerate.
Kendall—whose negligence in the first season led to the death of a hapless waitstaff, an incident covered up by his father—is picked by the patriarch to be the fall guy in the second season. Logan describes how “the Incas, in times of terrible crises, would sacrifice a child to the sun.” Kendall agrees to take the fall, but at the last minute, in front of the world, he denounces his father as “the malignant presence” behind it all, drawing up battle lines that drive the third season.
(To be continued)
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