Watching HBO’s new series Succession, I found myself thinking about a Saturday Night Live sketch from 2016 mocking television’s recent spate of sad-eyed, award-winning dramedies. The segment was a fake promo for Broken, a bleak new Thursday-night series on CBS about a family of professors who are all diagnosed with depression on the same day. But: “Because it’s 30 minutes, it’s a comedy!”
If an abundance of recent hit shows often feel like dramas structurally shoehorned into a comedic configuration, Succession is the opposite: It’s a black workplace satire stretched into an hourlong format and polished to a prestige-TV sheen. It deals in family empires, dynastic rivalries, greed, betrayal, and other irrefutably Shakespearian subjects, and its portrayal of a toxic New York media mogul gripping the keys to his kingdom could hardly be more timely. Tonally though, Succession often feels less like King Lear than The Office or Veep, with a crew of inept, profane, and poisonously ambitious individuals jostling to claw their way up the greasy pole of power.
That’s because it’s created by Jesse Armstrong, the British writer behind The Thick of It, In the Loop, Four Lions, and the Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You.” For the first half of its 10 episodes, Succession struggles to fill space, relying on imaginatively filthy dialogue and increasingly absurd scenarios to pad out the minimal action and character development. Midway through the season, though, the show finds its dramatic footing. It’s a test in patience, but a rewarding one.
Armstrong’s unproduced 2010 screenplay, Murdoch, might stoke suspicion about which media dynasty Succession is inspired by. But Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the octogenarian founder of Waystar Royco (the fifth-largest media conglomerate in the world), is more a stand-in for every aging mogul facing the waning of his own power, and the worth of the legacy he’ll leave behind. In the pilot episode, directed by Adam McKay (The Big Short, Anchorman), Logan is contemplating passing the reins of his company to his son Kendall (Jeremy Strong), a recovering addict who’s itching to prove himself. The rest of Logan’s descendants include Connor (Alan Ruck), the oldest, who mostly removes himself from the family business; Roman (Kieran Culkin), a hard-partying peacock; and Siobhan (Sarah Snook), a political operative with sharp elbows whose nickname, fittingly, is “Shiv.”
The idea of King Lear’s modern avatar being a media titan is such a potentially fruitful one that Edward St. Aubyn already explored it in his Lear update for the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Dunbar. There’s something about the corrosive combination of money, ambition, and paternal neglect that lends itself perfectly to tragedy on a Shakespearian scale. But Succession, early on, is more interested in mocking the ridiculous excesses of the monstrously privileged than probing the monsters they’ve become. In the first episode, a family dinner turns into a makeshift softball game outside, as many do—only this one involves multiple helicopters ferrying the Roys to a field on Long Island. Later, Roman offers a Latino employee’s son a million dollars if he can score a home run, only to tear the check up in front of him when the kid just gets to third base. In one outrageous (and Veep-like) scene, Shiv’s fiancé, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), encourages a young Roy cousin, Greg (Nicholas Braun), to eat a whole roasted songbird. “This is like a rare privilege, and it’s also kind of illegal,” Tom crows.
The challenge for Succession is making viewers care about this nest of vipers, sniping and biting at each other for hours on end. Initially, it’s hard work. Roman is a buffoon of a character whose only asset is his capacity for snappy comebacks. Shiv is brittle and almost entirely self-motivated. Kendall is the most sympathetic character, purely because Strong’s mournful performance makes it clear that he has emotional holes that no amount of money or drugs can fill. Cox’s Logan is the most frustrating gap in the series: He’s a mystery who seems to exist only to antagonize and torture his children. Cox communicates Logan’s frustrations at his increasingly enfeebled state, and his need to best everyone in his vicinity, but beyond that, there’s little sense yet of who Logan is or what makes him tick.
Macfadyen is so good he’s almost unrecognizable as the sycophantic but easily corruptible Tom, and Hiam Abbass is intriguingly enigmatic as Marcy, Logan’s devoted but steely third wife. Braun’s character, Greg, feels better suited to a different genre—he needs to be more cartoonishly useless and cretin-like than someone in a prestige drama can. Still, the acidity of Succession’s writing is inspired (even if the repeated gags involving urine wear thin on the third or fourth instance). “Call me if you go Lehman, will you?” Shiv says to Kendall while stock prices are tumbling. “I might want some of these chairs.” Roman, later in the series, is described as “a coked-up dauphin that doesn’t know shit from Shinola.”
The stylistic choices in the first few episodes add to the tonal dissonance. In the pilot, McKay employs a mockumentary kind of shaky-cam effect involving frequent zooms in and out on people’s faces. But the action is all set to a sonorous, somber score by Nicholas Britell (Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave) that counteracts the comedy. In the sixth episode, though, everything starts to fall into place. The drama peaks in an unbearably suspenseful boardroom scene, in which Kendall is stuck in traffic while trying to get to a crucial confrontation with his father. And the seventh episode allows viewers, for the first time, to see how unbelievably broken Logan’s children are, with Kendall and even Roman adding emotional texture to what feels increasingly like a tragedy.
It hints at what a masterly show Succession could still become. When it comes to a group of impossibly rich and grossly ambitious people all trying to undermine each other, comedy is easy to find. But Succession is a better and sharper series when it finds a relatable kind of sadness in its characters, who are essentially all unhappy and stunted people trying to earn their father’s love. That he might not be capable of giving it to them—and that he might even hate them for being born into privilege that he had to earn—is a fascinating vein for a familial drama to open, particularly one airing in a moment when a product of thwarted filial affection airs his insecurities daily, with profound consequences.