With the Succession premiere, HBO takes their aim at global-media conglomerates in a darkly comic familial drama about billion-dollar business and the dysfunctions of the one-percent.
With Succession, HBO are taking a break from dragons and robot cowboys to instead weave a timely saga about global-media conglomerates. The one in the Succession premiere is fictional, and the show is much more about the severely dysfunctional family behind the empire than its shady backroom deals and high-society showboating, but the parallels are pretty clear. That’s probably why Adam McKay was brought in to direct it, and given a lot of attention for doing so. His comedic catalogue – including Anchorman and Talladega Nights, the two best Will Ferrell movies – helps to take some of the edge off.
But Waystar-Royco, the fifth largest media conglomerate in the world, is similar enough to a Murdoch-esque media clan that jokes can’t disguise what the Succession premiere is trying to do, or what socially-conscious strata of the TV-watching populace it’s trying to court. This is a clever-enough show about reprehensible people doing despicable things. The fact it airs on HBO, which is itself part of a massive media conglomerate, doesn’t go unnoticed either.
Because the aging patriarch of Waystar-Royco, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), is due to step aside thanks to increasingly ill health, the Succession premiere hones in on his repugnant children, who are each vying for control of the billion-dollar company. In the premiere’s most obvious moment, Kieran Culkin’s Roman bets a Latino boy a ridiculous sum of money that he can’t hit a home run during his father’s outdoorsy birthday party. When he inevitably can’t, he rips the cheque up in the kid’s face. Afterwards, the parents are asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
This is the show at its most obvious and worst. It’s better when it offers authentic-seeming fly-on-the-wall accounts of high-stakes boardroom manoeuvring, and best when it captures the unseemly dynamic of an upper-class clan for whom affection is largely transactional. It’s smart that the Succession premiere opens with Logan getting up in the middle of the night and accidentally urinating on the floor; that’s the only moment of weakness you see him display, unless you count the brain haemorrhage he suffers at the end. He’s an old man by all accounts, but also a rich and stubborn one, which is why he elects to postpone his retirement rather than handing Waystar-Royco over to his oldest son, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), a recovering cocaine addict.
The cast also includes Alan Ruck as Connor, who is another Roy (it’s difficult to keep track), as well as Sarah Snook as Siobhan, a political advisor and squeeze of Matthew Macfayden’s Tom, a company climber. The latter is a solid source of comedy, but most of it comes from Nicholas Braun as Logan’s nephew, Greg. After we meet him working as a mascot in one of the company’s theme parks and getting so high and anxious that he violently vomits through the giant character’s eyes, it’s easy to be happy for him when he’s handed an entry-level position. At least he isn’t rich.
It’s a strong cast, and the Succession premiere shows an admirable ability to play with tone and expectation in order to make a point. It remains to be seen if that point is about the dark, corporate heart of billion-dollar business, or the cold, rotten one that pumps idle ambition for affection and approval around the wired circuitry of the one-percent. Everyone, even the wealthy, just wants to be loved. But Succession suggests that maybe being loved back isn’t attainable for everyone. If anything adds another dimension to its so-far familiar drama, it’ll likely be that.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.