Despite being given a prime Sunday night slot on HBO and Sky Atlantic, Succession hasn’t generated the buzz of network compatriots like Euphoria and Big Little Lies, nor the fandom of a Mindhunter or a Westworld.
But it’s possibly the most enjoyable hour-an-episode show of the past couple of years – and halfway through, its second season has really started to hit its stride. Trust me: the writers have been teeing up some sensational scripts and the irresistible cast are knocking them out of the park.
Maybe you haven’t given Succession a chance yet – or maybe you’re one of the many who couldn’t get into it. Succession suffered from what I call Four Episode Minimum Syndrome in season one, whereby a show really grabs you by its fourth episode, but in the face of such a multiplicity of TV shows, many people bail out if they’re not hooked by the pilot.
That’s not to say that the show, about a Murdoch-like media dynasty, started weakly by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, I think a lot of viewers prematurely felt like they’d got the show’s number in the pilot – got what this show is about. “Oh, it’s a Veep-type thing. Cool.”
As a comedy, Succession is extremely potent, full of lines of dialogue so delicious you want to wheel the episode back 10 seconds just to hear them again (for example, here’s Logan on a media buyout: “This was supposed to be choreographed. That’s about as choreographed as a dog getting fucked on roller-skates.”).
Given the current trajectory of human life on the Planet Earth, I can barely think of an area more ripe for satire than the news industry, and Succession skewers it brilliantly. Perhaps the most succinct example of this is a news chyron briefly glimpsed behind Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) in the offices of the show’s BuzzFeed stand-in, Vaunter: “Wait, Is Every Taylor Swift Lyric Secretly Marxist?”
The Roys are misanthropic, avaricious, odious people, but there’s a sofa armrest-slapping glee to be found in how plainly they see the moral peacocking of our times. The most charitable way to describe them might be that they’re pieces of shit, but they don’t pretend to be anything but.
The scripts are drum tight. Sculpted largely by The Thick of It and Veep alum., and watched over by Peep Show creator Jesse Armstrong, they are rich, dense and there isn’t a wasted syllable. Exchanges between characters are busy and intricate, but don’t feel Byzantine and pompous like they did in the increasingly disastrous House of Cards. Smart and yet natural, is the tone of the dialogue, written and yet realist. This is not an easy balance to maintain.
Logan Roy is the black hole around which everyone in the show orbits, but while Brian Cox gives a fearsome, rabid performance as the family patriarch, it’s the Roy siblings and their limpet-like spouses that really make the show sing. Matthew Macfadyen, who you may have dismissed as a stern, action-hero type from his work in Spooks, is a revelation as Tom, a leech on the family business who bounds around clumsily like a wide-eyed puppy and yet still comes across as cruel and ruthless. Nicholas Braun (Greg) and Sarah Snook (Shiv) are brilliant scene partners for him, the former creating some of the show’s funniest moments, and the latter giving a brutal exploration of power in a marriage and exposing the hollow victory of using polyamory as a sort of ‘relationship hack’.
Comedy is hard, and good comedic acting and writing is such consistently under-appreciated genius, but what distinguishes Succession from other fast-talking boardroom comedies is its drama. A dull sense of dread started to work its way in at the edges of the show toward the end of season one, and in season two mood has played a bigger part.
This is particularly true when it comes to the character of Kendall Roy, who is played with a moving stillness (paradox intended) by Jeremy Strong. Narcotised and numb, the eldest Roy sibling is arguably also the most despicable of the lot and yet oddly the most sympathetic. Regularly flirting with suicide, the corporate bludgeon doesn’t quite know whether to play the game, or simply check out of it. A complex character, he currently resides somewhere between the two, a kind of semi-useful automaton.
This week’s episode, ‘Tern Haven’, represented a new high for Succession and took its characters to the most dark and raw places we’ve seen them so far. The show isn’t yet able to floor you in the haunting, understated way a series like The Sopranos could just by closing an episode with a character doing some quotidian activity like eating a bowl of cereal, but in the throne room of ‘peak TV’, Succession might be starting to stage a succession of its own. Given enough seasons and gathering enough confidence, the show certainly feels like it has real greatness in it.