Being stuck in the same place, with the same people, year after year is the stuff of sitcoms and of families, and—not for nothing—hell. HBO’s genre-bending drama Succession, about an extremely wealthy, pathologically dysfunctional clan with a passing resemblance to the Murdochs, groks this connection. Succession is a hilarious dissection of the hellaciousness of being stuck in a sitcom plot from which you cannot extract yourself, tied in perpetuity to blood relatives by the bonds of cash. It is electric, funny, fun, and occasionally, tragic. The season finale of the series airs this weekend. You should be watching it.
Created by Jesse Armstrong and produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, Succession premiered on HBO nine weeks ago. Was it a comedy? A drama? Did it know? This confusion is ultimately what makes Succession so exceptional, but it can take an episode or two to get your bearings. It helps to know that Armstrong was previously a writer on In the Loop, a political satire created by Armando Iannucci, who would go on to make Veep.
At least 80 percent of Succession can be watched in the spirit of Veep, which is to say, as a sharp and filthy satirical comedy in which awful people with immense influence and varying degrees of idiocy fuck up and fuck over the people around them. On Succession, as on Veep, power is a demented dance (“I’m in a fuckin’ knife fight here, and I’m holding a dildo made out of American cheese”), situations are always sprinting toward FUBAR, and everyone is subject to the inanities and indignities of fools and monsters.
The aging patriarch, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the beastly founder of a media empire called Waystar-Royco, has spent the entire season refusing to be sidelined by retirement, strokes, or the boardroom machinations of his children. Logan is a ferocious businessman and a hideous father. The Roy children dislike him but are desperate to please him; they are rebellious yet tied to his money. If you could see into their psyches, you would find a Logan Roy–shaped crater in all of them, structural damage around which they have erected their personalities.
Logan is like the big bad wolf—the threatening, terrifying plot engine—and his children are the little pigs: the protagonists, futilely preparing for his huffing and puffing. They all have different strategies. The political consultant Shiv (Sarah Snook) has sensibly put some distance between herself and her father, lately working for a presidential candidate who sees Logan as an enemy of the people, but that job belies his tractor-beam influence over her life. Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) is an impish smart aleck perpetually playing family cutup. The eldest, Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), has moved halfway across the country, where there is barely enough room in all the wide-open spaces for his horizon-eclipsing idiocy. And then there is Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the desperate heir apparent, an addict who has done everything he can to succeed his father, only to be thwarted by him anyway. When it comes to the Roy offspring, Succession has it both ways: They are awful and they are pitiable, twisted adults but also poor little rich kids, Gollums lashed to (and bear-hugging) their family’s precious, enervating fortune.
One of the horrors of family is the way it refuses to let you change. Is there any reputation more permanent than the one you procured for yourself at 6? Succession plops you down in the midst of a particularly dysfunctional group, where your clues about who is actually capable of what come from the least reliable sources: their siblings and their malevolent dad. Is Roman as incompetent as Kendall says he is, or has he just never taken anything seriously? Can Kendall really save the company? Is his father’s dismissal of him as weak accurate or abusive or both? Can Connor be as dumb as he seems? (This one’s a gimme: He’s even dumber.) Does Shiv, the least despicable of the Roys, actually know what she’s doing, or does she only seem capable in comparison with her damaged brothers?
Whatever they make of one another, the Roys are united in their friendly contempt for the show’s breakout buffoon, Tom Wamsgans, played by a psychotically great Matthew Macfadyen, tearing into the role like he’s been waiting his whole career to get out of period costume. Tom is Shiv’s fiancé—it’s an open question how much even she disdains him—and a Waystar executive who manages up as a sycophant and manages down as a psychopath. He is alternately pathetic and terrifying, earnest and carnivorous, awkward, deranged, nervous, manic, and devoted, a foul-mouthed demon whirligig. “Here’s the thing about being rich. It’s fucking great. It’s like being a superhero, only better,” he tells gangly cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), earnest and shiny-eyed, delivering a variation on Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” speech as though he were Beaver Cleaver. “You get to do what you want. The authorities can’t really touch you. You get to wear a costume, but it’s designed by Armani.”
In my initial review of Succession, I opined that the show was inessential because it lacked any intimations of our omnipresent president. What was wrong with me? Sharp, smart, funny—and not about that? Give me more! Rather than being a flaw, the absence of contemporary political specifics from Succession’s otherwise realistic fictional universe is a thrill. It’s like an alternate timeline, in which other important issues—massive inequality, the vile superrich, familial dysfunction—have purchase on adult attention.
Shows teach you how to watch them, and Succession has a learning curve. Just when you are having the best time in this land of odious, verbally brilliant Scrooge McDucks, something genuinely painful takes place. The pillow in which you’ve been hiding your face from all the secondhand embarrassment will not protect you from Logan laying into Shiv until he draws tears; will not shield you from Kendall’s self-destruction; will not protect you from these sad kids’ gutting relationship with their cruel father and his awful money; will not protect you from the worst of their misdeeds, enabled by all that money. It’s not that Succession is a dramedy or a traumedy or a sad-com or a mad-com or a sit-sad or whatever portmanteau you prefer: It’s a comedy and then it’s a tragedy, in the same show, but not at the same time. I’ve come to think of Shiv’s name (short for Siobhan) as not just a wink at her cutting character but a nod at the show’s ethos: to gut you while you’re laughing. Not everything is funny, even if Succession mostly is.