A comedy that gets less funny as it goes along? Mmm, tell me more. One that takes us inside a wealthy media dynasty flouting every moral and judicial law in order to consolidate power? Ok. Here’s the best bit – there are no likeable characters! Sounds about as much fun as eczema. So why do I, like so many others, currently love Succession more than any other show on TV?
For a start, watching it feels like getting the gossip. Sons Roman and Kendall’s battle for dominance echoes that of James and Lachlan Murdoch, sons, of course, of Rupert Murdoch. Daughter Shiv is partly based on US executive Shari Redstone, who forced her ageing media tycoon father’s hand to take control of his company. The Trump name swirls around this world too, like flies on faeces. Stories of Donald refusing to pay his contractors are legion, just like the storyline in the show that resulted in a revenge raccoon being shoved up Logan Roy’s chimney (none of which is a euphemism). Though of course the character of Connor Roy – the moronic, incompetent, hooker-dependent son who thinks he can be president – is wholly rooted in fiction.
Moreover, it is fun. Unreasonably so. Succession has a kind of spontaneous, semi-improvised anarchy in its DNA. Actors are given multiple takes to horse around, with writers lobbing in alternate comic lines. Jesse Armstrong’s opus is tightly written, though – at points almost a screwball comedy. ‘Screw-you-and-a-kick-in-the-balls’ comedy would be more on the money, in fact. The command of language is absolute, most often in the service of childish insults.
We’ve seen this before in The Thick Of It – one of Armstrong’s previous shows – but it is stranger, more deeply rooted in character here. A recent episode featured “horse potatoes!” a cutting interjection from old-world matriarch Nan Pierce; later the insult “mole-woman” becomes somehow flirtatious in the mouth of Roman Roy, Kieran Culkin’s compulsively rude, stupid-intuitive imp.
His superb character portrait is one of many in the show, all of which get deeper this time around. Kendall, tied to his father by tragedy and blackmail in the first season finale, has become a lugubrious enforcer. He strides around acquiring then firing startups like Darth Vader in pinstripe. Their empathetic, liberal sister Shiv is a conniving chameleon, and her panicky husband Tom a social climber hampered by the lack of a spine. Best of all there’s Brian Cox as Logan Roy, mercurial CEO of media company Waystar Royco. Swinging from post-stroke confusion to boardroom satanism, he has more charisma to burn than there are trees in the Amazon. He was largely absent last season, an Ibsen patriarch haunting his offspring from offstage. This time round, he’s running the game.
The show is so satisfying to watch, so casually masterful. The cinematography and score are biting and beautiful. The writing nails an extraordinary range of tones, each series commencing with a knockabout energy that tightens into tragedy by its close. But while it is very, very funny, what I love about the show is its cruelty. TV often trades in sentimentality: narrative sugar-pills, little engineered reversals of fortune that persuade us our own happy ending is around the corner. Succession isn’t about that. The only ‘journey’ we’re taken on here stops off at every circle of hell. I find it bracing. Like being slapped with the truth, not kissed by a lie.
It’s a show about how one family’s trauma can traumatise the entire world. It famously uses wealth consultants, who advised the actors on behaving like the filthily rich – with suggestions such as not ducking when they exit a helicopter (after all, they’ve been climbing in and out of them their entire lives), or wearing coats because they’ll be stepping straight from the mansion into a limousine. As a result Succession rings electrifyingly true. From private equity predators to rightwing media barons, cynical demagogues and doublespeak lawyers, the 1% essentially elect our leaders and create our laws now. Their world warranted an inside job, and this is it.
The Thick Of It showed us Westminster less as a parliament, more like a hard-play area for overgrown toddlers. Succession broadens the lens. Watching this wild west intersection of politics, media, tech and finance reminds us we are all collateral damage in a turf war between psychopaths. It’s Game of Thrones, but with real blood: ours.