Season 1 spoiler light review by John Winterson Richards
Business drama is a difficult subgenre because the actual process of business is not that dramatic. The reality is more likely twelve hour days spent staring at computer scenes or on hold at the end of a telephone than people shouting in meetings. The edited highlights might be enough for a feature film like Wall Street or The Social Network, but the portrayal of any sort of unrelenting hard work, even at the top level, presents more of a challenge for episodic television.
One solution is to shade into crime drama, like the very enjoyable StartUp. Another is to shade into domestic drama about rich people, to focus on spending money rather than earning it, consumption rather than production. This is the strategy pursued by the likes of Dallas, Dynasty, The Colbys, and Dirty Sexy Money. The masses have an endless fascination with the lifestyles of "the One Percent," and even the very faint possibility that they might attain a bit for themselves is probably one of the main reasons Capitalism survives.
The producers of Succession seem to be well aware of this, and they do not hold back on the helicopters, private jets, expensive cars, and general bling. They also understand the need for good location work: a pastiche castle in Herefordshire and a New Mexico ranch make a powerful visual impression.
However what differentiates Succession from previous examples of the genre, which tended more to the "soap opera" in their scripting, is a particularly strong conceptual team, including British writers Lucy Prebble, Tony Roche, Anna Jordan, and Jesse Armstrong. The eclectic list of Executive Producers includes another Briton, the prolific Jane Tranter, as well as the left leaning essayist Frank Rich and comedian Will Ferrell. This gives it a lift in terms of quality but also means it is very much the product of a certain point of view.
This is a brief, spoiler light overview of the first season. This introduces us to the Mur... sorry, the Roy family. Patriarch Logan Roy has built up a media conglomerate noted for its right wing agenda. The child of his first marriage is somewhat sidelined. The children of his second marriage, two boys and a girl, are in competition for his affections and succession to control of his companies: the oldest boy breaks publicly with his father; the younger boy is a former drop out struggling to prove himself in business; and the girl has built her own career largely independent of her father. The father is now on his third marriage, to a fiercely protective woman of foreign origin with a rather obscure background. Hmm, come to think of it, that does sound oddly familiar.
The producers sold the project on the general assumption that everyone would see the Roys as Rupert Murdoch and his family, circa 2010. Making the characters so exaggerated and so grotesque that the Murdochs themselves could never argue that they were direct representations may be a clever defence against libel.
For there is no doubt that the Roys are not the Murdochs. Logan Roy is a self made Scottish Canadian while Rupert Murdoch was the son of a powerful Australian newspaperman. Roy's eldest child is a son and Murdoch's is a daughter. Where Roy's second daughter has forged her career in left wing politics, Murdoch's has made her own way in business. Most importantly Lachlan and James Murdoch are serious businessmen with longstanding marriages, nothing like the two younger Roy sons, who are at first no more than a pair of pathetic playboys posing as executives. Many other differences could be pointed out but hopefully we have said enough to satisfy the lawyers.
There are also elements of the stories of other wealthy families in the Roys. The eldest son has delusions of political grandeur, which appear to be a rather vicious satire of publishing heir Steve Forbes, who was in fact a credible candidate for President of the United States and who won a lot of respect on his side of the spectrum. Another incident is straight out of the history of the Kennedys, and it may astonish those unfamiliar with it how closely fiction follows fact in this respect.
As a final defence against litigation, Succession is sometimes categorised as satire, and some of the writers do have form there, but this is disingenuous, and, if there is any doubt that it is drama, the casting of Brian Cox as Logan Roy shatters the illusion.
Cox is one of the great actors of our time. Like many British actors of his rank, he has paid off his mortgage by playing his share of villains and authority figures and villainous authority figures in Hollywood features, and he is so memorable in such roles that it is easy to forget what a versatile performer he is. On television his career ranges from his precocious Henry II in The Devil's Crown through scene stealing support as Wellington's Intelligence Officer in Sharpe to actual comedy in Bob Servant. He deserves to be acknowledged as one of Scotland's national treasures.
Logan Roy is basically his King Lear. All his life the desire to be in control has been the core of who Logan is, and now he is conscious that life is slipping away and with it his control, or at least the illusion of control. Desperate to maintain his power, both over his business and his family - which, in his case, are much the same thing - he manipulates those closest to him, playing one off against another. For a man like him, the competition never ends - even when he agrees to family therapy.
His eldest son, Connor, opted out of the game long ago and has effectively retired to his eco-friendly New Mexico ranch. There he cultivates an interest in Napoleon, typically oblivious of the irony, and convinces himself that he is in love with a call girl. It is an ideal piece of casting that he is played by Alan Ruck, most famous as Ferris Bueller's father dominated friend. One can quite see how the one character might have grown up to become the other.
Logan's second son, Kendall, also seems to have "loser" stamped on his forehead when we first meet him. A recovering addict still obsessed with the wife who left him, he tries to hide his inadequacies behind a display of machismo which serves only to highlight them. He seems to associate business with the "frat boy" culture depicted in Hollywood business films - which is far from the reality, as he finds out when he is shot down for using foul language by a proper businessman.
Yet a nuanced performance by Jeremy Strong suggests there may be more to Kendall than initially meets the eye. In particular, he seems to want to learn from his mistakes. He also realises that he will never win his father's respect if he simply acts as his doormat - but then neither does Logan appreciate it when people defy him.
It is Logan's third son, Roman, who has the genuine independent streak that Kendall lacks and which is one of the essential attributes of a true leader. It is, however, that same independent streak that has led him to a life of self indulgence. He likes the idea of business but lacks application. His carefree attitude masks a man who is deeply unsure what he wants to be. This is a plum role and Kieran Culkin seems to enjoy himself thoroughly in it.
It is clear that it is Logan's daughter Siobhan, played by Sarah Snook, who has inherited most of her father's strengths. The poster girl for the Electra Complex, she is the most self confident of the Roy children, and his natural successor, but for the fact that her own act of rebellion has taken her to the Anti-Capitalist camp of his enemies.
Matthew Macfadyen is wonderfully unsettling as Siobhan's strange choice as husband, a beta male from the Mid West. Could there be more to him than meets the eye? The same can be asked of Logan's icily polite third wife, Marcia, played by Hiam Abbass, and of Greg, played by Nicholas Braun, a poor cousin who comes looking for a job and who may not be quite as stupid as he looks.
J Smith-Cameron is wholly credible as Logan's long serving General Counsel, as is Peter Friedman as his veteran right hand man. James Cromwell is effective, as always, in a guest role as Logan's estranged brother. Harriet Walter, again as always, steals her scenes as Logan's aristocratic British second wife. Eric Bogosian is a younger and more virile Hollywood take on real life left wing US Senator Bernie Sanders.
The story flows naturally from the characters, which is the way it should be done. The price of this is that it is fairly predictable, at least in the first season. None of the betrayals comes as a surprise - except that it is a surprise that the characters are surprised. They should have seen it coming as the viewer did.
Season One does what it is supposed to do: it sets up the game and lines up the players in their starting positions. This puts the show in a place where it has several options for subsequent seasons. It could take the tried and tested path to melodrama or it could say something original about where the media are going at the moment. If it chooses the latter path, it needs to rise above cliche and become more than a highly fictionalised version of any real life famous family. Either way, it needs to continue to keep the viewers entertained with the combination of backstabbing and glamour that made the first season something of a guilty addiction.
Published on June 8th, 2022. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.