Last year, Britain’s own Jesse Armstrong headed to America to craft HBO’s Succession, a blistering, funny dissection of a dysfunctional family in charge of a media empire. Now, Hollywood’s own Richard Gere has arrived on the BBC to explore similar territory in MotherFatherSon, a drama about a media tycoon and an heir that makes Succession’s clan look positively healthy.
Gere play Max, the kind of man who can walk into a busy London office and make everyone fall silent without saying a word. It’s a role seemingly tailor-made for the actor, who barely blinks as he sizes upon everyone with a piercing stare – offset barely by his twinkling charm. Even when he smiles, you can’t shake the suspicion that the grin is only there to mask some ruthless calculations.
Fresh from The Assassination of Gianna Versace, writer Tom Rob Smith isn’t above giving Gere the chance to show off in a way that’s all too apt; he delivers a monologue about shortcake with aplomb, and takes a gruelling pleasure in speaking at length about the importance of positioning chairs in interviews. Halfway through the episode, he meets the UK Prime Minister, but not once gives the impression that they might remotely be in charge – a rival politician (Sarah Lancashire’s Angela), on the other hand, has something more about her that impresses.
Gere’s balanced out beautifully by Helen McCrory, who, after a blistering turn in Penny Dreadful, steals back every inch of screen she can from Gere’s wealthy authority figure as his ex-wife, Kathryn; she dislikes and resents him, with a non-nonsense confidence that’s as powerful as his sense of privilege.
In between their toxic chemistry stands their son, Caden, editing The National Reporter but barely keeping on top of the work and strain that entails. For all of Kathryn’s sentimental, playful affection for her son, we soon realise that there’s a highly disturbed, and nasty, man loitering beneath the surface. Billy Howle, who played a similar role in Netflix’s Outlaw King, is brilliantly, horribly good at being the pathetic, childish heir to a throne – a boy who wants desperately to be like his dad, but does so in all the wrong ways, imploding with his unresolved issues and unspoken emotions. There are grim consequences for those who cross his path, particularly in a sequence that plays out as unnecessarily familiar, but the overall piece is undeniably well acted by a hugely convincing cast.
The result sets the scene for a determinedly serious psychological drama, a study of fractured family tension and poisonous expectations, with an added dose of political conspiracy and media clout that gives it all a topical edge. It might not be as funny as Succession, but MotherFatherSon doesn’t want to be, relying instead on watching two parents navigate treacherous waters in which the sharks may well be them. This is dark, impeccably performed drama.
MotherFatherSon premieres at 9pm on BBC Two on Wednesday 6th March. Episodes are available weekly live and on-demand through BBC iPlayer.