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Succession Premiere Review: A Darkly Funny Take On Power, Wealth, & Family Dysfunction

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Adam McKay is getting no small amount of attention for directing the premiere of HBO’s new series Succession, a darkly comic look into the lives of a dysfunctional family in charge of an enormous fictional media conglomerate. McKay, a recent Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay on The Big Short, an award he shared with co-writer Charles Randolph, is perhaps best known for his zany Will Ferrell comedies, like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys. With a resume like that, the focus on McKay likely makes a lot of sense from HBO’s point of view. After all, the network is tasked with selling viewers on a brand new series steeped more so in current events than swords and dragons or robot cowboys run amok. 

For its part, Succession concerns the Roy family, a not-so-thinly veiled Murdoch or Redstone-esque clan in charge of Waystar-Royco, the fifth largest media conglomerate in the world. The show is also about the question of which family member will take control when aging patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) finally steps aside. It’s subject matter and cautiously building darkly comic tone is in keeping with McKay’s recent shift from bubbly farce to more socially conscious storytelling, but he’s not the only one behind the camera wading into slightly different territory. 

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Succession is created and executive produced by Jesse Armstrong, who has a background in farcical comedy, too, like the UK college-set series Fresh Meat and the cringe-inducing first-person sitcom Peep Show. He also wrote the script for In The Loop, Armando Iannucci’s political satire spun off from The Thick of It and starring a foul-mouthed Peter Capaldi. Armstrong has also written scripts for Iannucci’s Veep, making him a de facto member of the HBO family, which is itself part of a massive media conglomerate, so... 

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Perhaps that gives Armstrong special insight into the goings-on in the offices and boardrooms at Waystar-Royco, but it doesn’t really matter. At times Succession deftly maneuvers itself into something resembling a fly-on-the-wall account of the sort of high stakes maneuvering and dealmaking at a billion-dollar corporation, but that's not where its real interest lies. It's mainly concerned with the dysfunction of the Roy children. In that regard, Succession is more Arrested Development than Billions, but it's also its own thing, too.

For starters, that interest in the Roy clan doesn’t preclude the series from taking an occasional prosecutorial stance, as seen in McKay’s work on The Big Short or even, oddly, The Other Guys. In Succession it’s not so flagrant, though the series doesn’t shy away from playing up the repugnant behavior of its ultra-rich characters. In the premiere, Kieran Culkin’s Roman, a quintessential wild child, toys with a young Latino boy during his father’s birthday party, betting an exorbitant sum of money on whether or not the kid can hit a home run. When the boy inevitably fails, he rips up the check he’d written as proof of his sincerity. His father offers the child a handshake and a hollow “well done.” It’s as in-your-face as the premiere gets, in terms of illustrating the ills at the foundation of this family.

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Yet Succession isn’t fueled by a need to underscore every interaction between the Roys and the “plebs” around them in such obvious ways. The series doesn’t look in from the outside as often as it ventures far behind the curtain of the Roy inner sanctum. That affords Armstrong an unfiltered, probative account of a particular family dynamic, one that treats affection as transactional exchange, which is pretty much what you expect from a group of people who grew up under the thumb of a man like Logan. 

The series begins with Logan waking in the middle of the night and urinating on the floor, having believed himself to be where that particular transaction normally occurs. He’s turning 80 and by all accounts is ready to leave Waystar-Royco in the hands of Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), Logan's eldest son from his second marriage. Kendall’s a recovering addict who likes to get pumped up before meetings by rapping along to hip hop on his noice-canceling headphones, unconcerned how he looks or sounds. That's mostly because the only approval that matters to him is the one he'll never get. That much is made clear by the end of the first hour, when Kendall’s ascension to the head of the company is put on hold as his father delays his retirement, appoints Roman to a high-level position, and promptly suffers a stroke, leaving some serious questions as to who’s actually in charge of the company. 

Those questions are mainly fielded by the other Roy children, including Alan Ruck as Connor, the oldest Roy from Logan’s first marriage, who lives in New Mexico for reasons that become obvious the more we get to know the character. It also includes Siobhan or “Shiv” (Sarah Snook) a political advisor, who is dating Matthew Macfayden’s Tom, an ambitious climber in the family company and also one half of the show’s darkly comedic heart. 

In the comedy department, Macfayden in joined by Nicholas Braun, as Greg, Logan’s nephew. Greg proudly takes center stage in what is certainly the most inauspicious character introduction in the series. Stoned, while working as a mascot in one of the company’s theme parks, Greg is besieged by a group of overeager children and subsequently begins to lose his lunch. The result is a (presumably) beloved figure of children’s entertainment spewing a torrent of vomit through his cartoonishly large eyes. Not long after, Greg is schmoozing with his billionaire relatives and being berated and harassed by Tom (taking full advantage of the one power dynamic that doesn't find him at the bottom of the food chain) before being handed an entry-level position at the company. If nothing else, Succession has a great handle on some men’s ability to continually fail upwards. 

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With its strong cast and ability to swing wildly from a dark drama in the trenches of billion-dollar boardroom wars to a near satirical look at the bitter disaffection of the one percent, Succession is more than a expose on the filthy rich and powerful. As the series progresses, it becomes clear the Roy family is bound together by more than money and ambition and the capitalistic need to become bigger, to consume more; they are bound by a distinct need to earn the approval and affection of a father who doesn’t just withhold such things, but may simply be uninterested in providing them. That creates an undercurrent of sadness in the show and adds another dimension to the drama and the darkly comic aspects as well. Succession’s real claim to fame may not reside in its depiction of the wealthy, but in its pitch black depiction of family dysfunction. 

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Succession continues next with ’S**t Show at the F**k Factory’ @10pm on HBO.

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