Nothing happens and the characters are vile but Succession is still the best thing on TV
Peep Show creator Jesse Armstrong’s media dynasty is back, with its members being as deliciously cruel to each other as ever, says Ed Cumming
Succession returns tonight. The programme saved me a lot of trouble last year, because when I was asked for recommendations I could just say “Succession” and leave it at that. Explaining why Jesse Armstrong’s acid comedy-drama was so satisfying was more difficult. “It’s about a media dynasty, kind of like the Murdochs,” I would say, leaving whoever I was talking to to wonder if this was really a more promising subject than a beautiful female assassin, or a cowboy theme park staffed by killer robots. “Nothing much happens,” I’d add, “and all the characters are awful. Please watch it.” So far there haven’t been many complaints.
Brian Cox plays the ageing patriarch Logan Roy, a Scottish-American businessman who has built a vast media empire, spanning theme parks, satellites, TV stations and cruise ships, among countless other wings. It’s the kind of late-career opportunity male actors must dream of and Cox plays it with relish. At full strength, his Logan is like an angry buffalo, all muscular gruffness, but in the opening episodes he is laid low by a stroke. His son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) is the obvious candidate to take over, but it’s clear to everyone, including Kendall, when he is being honest with himself, that he doesn’t have the right stuff.
Who instead? His cunning wife Marcia (Hiam Abbass)? Definitely not the eldest son, Connor (Alan Ruck), an eccentric libertarian with a prostitute for a girlfriend. Probably not Roman (Kieran Culkin), the spoilt youngest, with his sexual hang-ups and drug addictions. Of the direct descendants, only the daughter, Siobhan (Sarah Snook), known as Shiv, seems to have the requisite brains and ruthlessness, but she is busy with her career in politics and her buffoonish fiance Tom (Matthew Macfayden). The newest arrival is nephew Greg (Nicholas Braun), seemingly the only man with a work ethic. These characters glide between boardrooms and their enormous houses in limos and helicopters, abusing each other, cocooned by money and unable to think of anyone but themselves.
The moment I knew I was in for the long haul is in the sixth episode, “Which Side Are You On?”. Kendall finally enacts a plot to oust his father with a vote of no confidence. He has secured the votes to do it, or so he thinks, but at the crucial moment, Roman withers under the old man’s gaze. Having been stuck in traffic for most of the meeting, Kendall arrives just in time to see all his plans come to naught. His face crumples. Kendall’s face often crumples. He’s like a basset hound with a coke problem.
One of Succession’s strengths is its near-total commitment to showing how dreadful the Roys are. Despite the apparently high stakes, with decisions involving billions of dollars, nothing really matters to these people. Billions, another glossy programme about American oligarchs, goes to lengths to connect their antics to the effects on the plebs. It’s even in the title. Succession has no such concerns. Share prices plummet, customers get sick and rockets blow up on launchpads, but for the grasping siblings and their hangers on they’re all just opportunities to get one over on each other. Armstrong, who co-created Peep Show and Fresh Meat, knows all about characters speaking honestly to each other. His monsters unleash “f**k offs” liberally. The creative team includes Lucy Prebble, the Enron playwright, and the Veep writers Tony Roche and Georgia Pritchett, and the dialogue is as caustic as you’d hope. “The dinosaur is having one last roar at the meteor before it wipes him out,” says Kendall of his main benefactor. An episode based around Tom’s stag do features fluid-based gags that would not be out of place in the other shows.
Its signature shot is the shaky, handheld over-the-shoulder view of a character’s face, zooming in and out on their expressions as they dissemble, abuse each other and plot to do over their close family. I was trying to remember what it reminded me of and then it hit me: the Bourne films. Or at least, the good Bourne films. You can see the gears turning in their minds. It adds to the satirical mock-seriousness of the whole conceit: look how important these people think they are. The cuts are sharp, too; you sense a lot of work is done in the edit to trim the fat and build suspense.
I say “near-total”, because each character is permitted just enough weakness to retain the viewer’s sympathy. Mainly this happens when they have a moment of self-awareness. Roman faces his sexual hang-ups. Shiv and Tom confront the glaring fissure in their marriage. Kendall realises he will never be a fraction of the businessman his father wants him to be. The second series begins shortly after the first ends. Kendall walks around like a ghost, hollowed out by the events at the end of the first series. The risk of the second series is that it fails to replicate the energy of the original story. But on the basis of the first few episodes, everyone is being as deliciously cruel as ever.
Earlier in that sixth episode, Tom gives Greg some advice over dinner in an expensive restaurant.
“Look, here’s the thing about being rich, OK?” he says. “It’s f**king great! OK? It’s like being a superhero, only better. You get to do what you want, the authorities can’t really touch you, you get to wear a costume, but it’s designed by Armani, and it doesn’t make you look like a prick.” He’s wrong. The joke’s on them.
Succession returns on 12 August at 9pm on Sky Atlantic