Opinion | And now, meet the crazy, rich Americans
In this, my 100th column for ‘Lounge’, I salute the best new show of the year, ‘Succession’
The wisest line of dialogue I’ve heard on television this year comes from an unlikely character. On the show Succession, Roman Roy—one of several irresponsible heirs to a severely irresponsible media empire—is a deluded twit who sincerely believes most people like him because he looks like a matador. He revels in rubbing family the wrong way, wants to be chief operating officer only because he likes the sound of it, and yet it is this man who offers a brilliant moment of self-awareness. Desperate to get a board member on his side, Roman leans forward and says, “I’m dumb, but I’m smart.”
Succession, a new HBO series streaming in India on Hotstar, goes some way to demonstrate how all its characters (and its viewers) could echo what Roy said. This is a show about the skullduggery that holds together a Murdoch-ian media empire, with a family quarrelling over the body of the patriarch while the old man is still coughing. Only, because this is a show created by Jesse Armstrong, he is probably using a decidedly unprintable swear word. Armstrong—a British writer who has worked on profane and perfect satires The Thick Of It, In The Loop, Four Lions and everybody’s favourite Black Mirror episode, “The Entire History Of You”—has created something masterful with Succession, a darkly comic drama about how entirely unprepared we are when it comes to wealth and power.
The concept of upstart siblings bickering for a billionaire’s estate sounds like it could be a play on King Lear, but this is a show about the wormy nature of power, which makes each pretender to the throne—and, indeed, the throne itself—more slippery. Logan Roy, played by the imperious Brian Cox, is a wily old bastard who chooses his 80th birthday to announce that he will not retire, since he considers his children unfit to shoulder his legacy. Logan might have lost continence and clarity, and finds it hard to stop pouring coffee into a cup, but he continues to gruffly berate anyone in his path. The US president, for instance, is “basically an intern” to Logan, who has been through 10 of them.
His children are a piece of work. There is Kendall, a former drug addict who now wears the stuffiest of shirts, one who wants to be the new boss but is woefully out of touch with the real world. There’s Connor, who doesn’t care about the restructuring of the family trust but loses his cool over the temperature of butter. There’s the daughter, Siobhan, a political consultant who seems not to care about the family conglomerate but is always willing to mess with power. There’s Roman, whom you met in the first paragraph, who is furious at a distant cousin for being tall, which brings us to cousin Greg, the (tall) simpleton who quickly learns not only where the bodies are buried, but how best to leverage the dead.
It is between Greg and Siobhan’s servile husband, Tom—the two men lowest on the totem pole of power—that things get truly interesting. Greg, glad to finally get a pay cheque, just wants to eat at California Pizza Kitchen. “You might think it tastes delicious,” objects Tom, while letting the boy in on obscene and silly pleasures. Tom equates being rich to being a superhero—“you get a costume, only it’s designed by Armani”—and the stench of privilege would be overbearing if we did not routinely see Tom prostrate himself in front of the bigger players in the family. Asked to “eat shit” to protect his CEO, Tom hurries off to find, in his own words, “a knife and fork and some hollandaise”.
The cast is smashing, but I must single out Matthew Macfadyen as Tom, Jeremy Strong as the defensive and hesitant Kendall, and Kieran Culkin—whom I’ve loved ever since the defiantly dark and pompous comedy Igby Goes Down—as the smarmy Roman. The first episode shows off the reliably excellent Cox and is intriguingly directed by The Big Short maker Adam McKay, but things only get messier—and much, much more compelling—as the show goes on. By the time the season finale aired last week, we were given 10 elegant, biting and ultimately satisfying episodes. It is one of the finest new shows of the year, and in this, my 100th column for Lounge, I salute Succession.
Dumb but smart. Here lie young warriors who savagely use Star Wars references to cut each other down, but clearly belong to a generation unprepared to run with the wolves. Dumb but smart. People who giggle as they eat Tout Le Lapin (“all of the rabbit”) and drape restaurant napkins solemnly over their heads as they bite into songbirds. Dumb but smart. People disliking a female political candidate because she is both too fake and too real. Dumb but smart. Not cheating on a lover and then expecting heroic applause. “We behaved ourselves,” says a character. “They’re going to write songs about how good we were.”
Succession is a show about the old guard, unable to let go, and a show about the young, unable to differentiate between empty entitlement and actual influence. It is a show where young men take their shirts off and casually brainstorm, deciding—on a macho impulse—to shut down newspapers. It could be a farce if it didn’t feel this real. We are all carrying around our own perceived thrones. We are all insecurely holding on to what we believe is power. We are all afraid of usurpers. We are all waiting for usurpers. We are all King Lear.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
The writer tweets at @RajaSen