Succession Season 1 (HBO)
Written by Jesse Armstrong, Tony Roche, Jonathan Glatzer, Anna Jordan, Georgia Prichett, Susan Soon He Stanton, Lucy Prebble, and Jon Brown
Directed by Adam McKay, Mark Mylod, Adam Arkin, Andrij Parkeh, Miguel Arteta, and S. J. Clarkson
American television has a history of focusing its dramatic television shows around the wealthy. Look back at programs like Dallas or Dynasty, glamorizing the soap-operatic lifestyle of the rich and powerful. Today, we have “reality” television programs that consider themselves “aspirational,” look at Bravo or E! In the same way, that shows like Duck Dynasty exist to mythologize and push a false narrative of “working class,” the shows about the rich are intended to teach people that these grossly extravagant people earned their money fairly and lead such satisfying, full lives. Writer-director-producer Adam McKay has had enough of glamorizing the rich and decided to make a series that subverts our expectations.
Succession is the story of the dominant media mogul Logan Roy, his four adult children, and the people that surround them. It’s obvious what inspired McKay when he was mapping out this family. You can see paintbrush strokes of the Trumps, Rupert Murdoch, the Kennedys, pretty much every rich failson or faildaughter of the monied class that has popped up in media. Connor, the eldest Roy, does nothing except spend his money on maintaining his estate in New Mexico and prepping for the apocalypse by hoarding resources like clean water. Kendall is attempting to be his father’s successor while dealing with the twin problems of a divorce and substance abuse. Siobahn is the only daughter and works as a political fixer for Democrats, which puts her at odds with her conservative father. And last, there is Roman, the youngest who puts on airs of not caring about responsibility while being pathologically terrified of his father.
The opening moment of the story when we enter is the birthday party of Logan; at the same time, rumors of his pending retirement are going around. Kendall is chomping at the bit because he sees himself as the one to take the reigns. Logan is deeply resentful of his children, he is terrified of being an irrelevant person. At one point, Logan has a meeting canceled with the President after arriving at the White House.o He spends the rest of the episode fuming over this, and when the President calls to apologize, he makes him wait on the line to push home the point that Logan is the important one. Logan extends this disdain towards his own children, whom he expects to cower before him. He regularly dismisses their ideas and verbally batters them. When Kendall persists, Logan even moves to physically attack him, but his wife, Marcia, intervenes.
McKay very clearly doesn’t want us sympathizing with anyone in the story, and that is a good thing. The point of the show is to highlight how out of touch and genuinely evil people in this social class become. Kendall is the character most likely to be considered the sympathetic protagonist, and by the end of season one, it is clear he is just as cowardly, craven, and selfish as the rest of them. His divorce and substance abuse will be seen as relatable problems, but if you think about this, he has access to the best resources in the world to deal with these challenges. Kendall could afford to go to the most effective rehab facility in the world, but it wouldn’t matter because, really, he doesn’t want to change. He can afford the most influential lawyers and decimate his wife and take what he wants, but he’s still in love with her. So, he could find the most successful couples counselor on Earth to try and help them sort through the marriage, but Kendall is ultimately more interested in satiating his own personal whims that he can’t make the relationship work.
If you’re only familiar with McKay through his work with Will Ferrell (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers), then you know a small piece of what Succession is like. The humor is incredibly grounded, and the world doesn’t go into the absurdities that McKay’s early film work would delve into. Instead, this has more of the tone of The Big Short or Vice, but structured in a more digestible way, especially more than that latter film. There are beautiful moments of cringey humor, especially between Tom, Siobahn’s fiancee, and Greg, a grand-nephew trying to get a foothold in the corporate world. Tom is deeply insecure about his working-class background and revels in being both mentor and tormentor to Greg. Everything Tom does is about kissing up to Logan, or whomever he believes has the advantage at the moment. He’s my favorite character in the show because of the continuous serious of missteps he makes.
By the end of season one, you shouldn’t be rooting for anyone here. This is a story tilting towards disaster, but the sad thing is the Roys will likely land on their feet because of their wealth. People like Tom and the employees of Logan’s Waystar media empire will be liquidated before a member of the Roy family feels an ounce of pain. They have their hands in so many pots that they can afford to ruin millions of people’s lives. And those corporate cogs will see it as an unavoidable part of the system. Succession is a beautiful Greek tragedy by way of a vicious comedy. These are the Bluths of Arrested Development realized in an unsympathetic fashion.