Even if you haven’t seen Succession, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of it. (Trailers for the new season were all over HBO when Game of Thrones was airing).
And if you’ve heard of it but haven’t watched it, chances are you don’t know what it’s really like. You may very well be avoiding it because you think you do.
I know I was.
The marketing for Succession, at least as far as I could discern before I started watching, pegged it as a deadly serious drama, a struggle of wills and shouting matches within a high powered family business. The central question — will the current CEO of a company pick a new CEO or not — sounds like it could be interesting. But it sure as hell doesn’t sound funny.
But funny it is. In fact, it’s hilarious. It’s the kind of hilarity, however, that has a very light touch and comes with a hefty dose of genuinely gripping, superbly acted drama.
Succession is created and written in part by Jesse Armstrong, known for the much more obvious satires The Thick of It and In the Loop, which ought to be a clue. It’s also executive produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, hearty second and third clues as to what’s really going on here.
The show is, in no uncertain terms, a satire, specifically of wealth and power and the kind of people those things produce. While every character has small moments of vulnerability and redemption, they are all, by and large, extraordinarily unlikeable. It’s like if It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia also had Shakespearean levels of drama.
In fact, the tale of an old leader with a failing mind dividing his empire among his children, Succession has easy parallels with King Lear. It’s just this time there’s no Cordelia. And Gloucester’s covering up a massive sex abuse scandal.
Our Lear, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), is the aging founder of Waystar Royco, a morally-dubious multi-billion dollar company with its tentacles in pies the world over. After he suffers a stroke on his 80th birthday, the question of who will succeed him — he has four children and plenty of wolves at the door — becomes muddled.
When we first meet the heir apparent, Logan’s son Kendall (Jeremy Strong), he’s exuding serious Patrick Bateman vibes, pumping himself up to the Beastie Boys as he’s driven through the streets of New York. He could be a real businessman. But in action, he has a bizarre, disingenuous, underformal attitude. “We ready to fuck or what?” he asks the founder of the website he’s looking to buy. When he’s met with resistance, he asserts that he thinks the site is “the shiz.” And then the deal falls through.
It’s jolting and embarrassing, and it’s not immediately evident that it’s meant to be funny. But it very much is, a fact that becomes clearer as we get to know the Roy family better.
Kendall has the worst time of any of the Roy kids, facing and causing some severe trauma along the way. But even he is deeply funny, with his near-pathological love/hate relationship with his father, best expressed in a mortifying season 2 rap about how much he respects him.
Logan’s other three children — confident and ruthless Siobhan (Sarah Snook), frenetic and profane Roman (Kieran Culkin), and aggressively deluded Connor (Alan Ruck) — each inhabit a particular niche on the spectrum of overblown distastefulness. In fact, some of the deepest-seated comedy comes from Logan’s surprise that his kids, raised by a conniving billionaire who’s clawed and betrayed his way to power, have grown up to have issues.
But while the show is, by and large, a subtle satire, there are heftier punches of full-blown comedy every now and again, driving home that maybe you shouldn’t be taking this as seriously as you think.
The most consistently and outrightly funny character is Greg (Nicholas Braun), the minor stoner and major screw-up cousin, once removed, who stumbles his way into the family’s inner circle. An outsider, Greg has the luxury of pointing out the absurdity of the Roy family’s predilections.
Greg’s so eager to please and fit in, however, that his delivery of these observations is doubly funny. Sometimes it verges on straight comedy, like this blissful little interaction when he’s caught stuffing company pastries into dog poop bags to take home.
This is a classic moment between Greg and Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), who are far and away the show’s best and funniest pairing. Another outsider desperate to fit in, Tom is the embodiment of false confidence. An earnest asshole who’s married his way to the top and is punching above his weight, his brash attempts to ingratiate himself and fill the shoes he’s found himself in are hilariously tragic.
Characters who’ve grown up in a lampooned world can be funny just by existing. It’s when normal people contort themselves to fit that same existence that the humor really shines through. And it’s when Tom and Greg’s clashing styles of contortion come together (as they often do) that the show most clearly exposes its hilarious underbelly.
If anything, it feels as though the show is exposing itself a little more this season.
ATN is the Roy family’s conservative, fear-mongering news network. (It’s fictitious, but it’s not hard to conjure up a real-world 3-lettered equivalent). Here’s the sample ATN “news story” from last season’s opening credits:
It’s definitely funny. But it’s subtle. Now let’s take a look at the sample news story from this year’s credits:
Ah. Did someone behind the scenes say, “No one realizes this is a comedy. What can we do about that?” I wouldn’t be surprised.
It’s nice that they’re pushing the comedy further, if for no other reason than to let more potential viewers in on the joke. But I hope they don’t overstep. Succession is so good primarily because it has such a light comedic touch, so light it’s sometimes hidden away altogether in long swathes of genuine drama.
Just give me Greg and Tom eating ortolans, and let’s leave it at that.
And if you haven’t watched, please give it a try just so you can see Greg and Tom eat ortolans. And use human furniture. And realize they’re only in the company’s second-best panic room. If you start watching now, you’ll be all caught up in time for the final two episodes of the season, airing October 6th and 13th.