At first, I have to admit to being put off by the characters of HBO’s "Succession," a new series about a wealthy white family of power players torn apart by drama and disappointment. But it’s the kind of show that grows on you as it unfolds. Now, I realize some people may never get past my initial reaction, and it can be difficult for the show to answer the question “Why should I care?” after a few episodes. But there is something unique about the way “Succession” is structured in that it’s a defiantly non-high-concept show built around long scenes of dialogue and eruptions of inner conflict made external. In an era when it feels like ALL Prestige TV has to have a hook, this is an old-fashioned drama that owes more to William Shakespeare than Michael Crichton.
The family members at the center of “Succession” are New York multi-billionaires behind one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world—echoes of Rupert Murdoch or even the Trumps feel intentional. In the pilot written by Jesse Armstrong (Oscar nominee for “In the Loop”) and directed by Adam McKay (Oscar winner for “The Big Short”), we meet the Roys, led by Logan Roy (Brian Cox), a cruel, vicious patriarch who may be coming to the end of his life (the premiere takes place on his 80th birthday) but he’s still got a few tricks up his sleeve. In the opener, it has been widely rumored that Logan is going to hand his company, Waystar Royco, over to his son Kendall (Jeremy Strong). Kendall is trying to close a deal with a tech company, please his father on his birthday, and prepare for his company ascendancy. None of those three things really go as planned.
Kendall has three siblings. There’s Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), a gregarious young man who constantly seems to need attention, even as he’s playing it cool. He no longer works at Waystar, but the events of the first few episodes force him back in. There’s Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook), the only daughter and youngest child. She’s also left the family business for a life in politics, and sometimes seems overrun by the macho alpha males of the Roys, but that has arguably often made her the smartest and most level-headed person in the room. Finally, there’s Connor (Alan Ruck), who is so far from the Roy ethos that he gives his father sourdough bread starter for his birthday.
Other memorable characters pop up on the periphery of the core children, including their father’s third wife Marcia (Hiam Abbass), Shiv’s husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), an awkward cousin who unexpectedly pops up named Greg (Nicholas Braun), an old family friend and colleague named Frank (Peter Friedman), and Kendall’s ex-wife Rava (Natalie Gold).
It’s just the right number of characters for a family drama about people with a lot of power and money but less moral backbone and even less street smarts. Kendall is particularly annoying at first, trying to close a deal with some macho bullshit and being the last person to see that his father is not going to behave as he expects. The Roys are generally unlikable, especially in a scene where they play baseball and Roman offers to give a poor kid nearby $1 million if he hits a home run. These are the kind of assholes who literally play games with people they deem below them.
Then everything changes. Without spoiling anything, the final scenes of the premiere pull the rug out from the entire Roy family, and “Succession” becomes a more interesting dissection of what happens when emotion and career decisions intersect. The complexity of a family business is well-handled in what are basically negotiation scenes about the future of the company with the Roy children. All of the performers start to feel more confident with their characters and the writers allow things to play out in long dialogue scenes, which you don’t see that often on TV anymore. There’s no rock music, robots, or flashbacks. It’s dependent on character, performance, and dialogue—and all three elements cohere more and more as the show goes on.
In this crowded market, selling a show to you as being good because it doesn’t really have a hook can be tough. And I’m not sure how long “Succession” can keep up the relatability with characters with whom, well, only 1% of the world can really relate. However, it’s off to a more interesting start than several recent HBO shows (I’m looking at you, “Here and Now”) and the pedigree of the cast and crew should keep the production engaging. We’ve always loved to watch the high and mighty fall in fiction, and seeing the Roys collapse under the weight of their own underhanded machinations should make for an unexpected summer diversion.