Warning: This contains minor spoilers for Season 1 of Succession.
“You and Kendall are thinking of killing your dad?” a friend of the Roy family asks wayward heir Roman halfway through Succession. “Well, that’s a little Greek tragedy,” comes the reply. “Yeah, Oedipus,” Lawrence adds. “Did I say that I was going to screw my mother?” exclaims Roman. “That’s like phase two.” You can’t quite tell if he’s kidding or not, and that’s the sublimely spiky line that HBO’s new drama walks – a line that actually works much better when you realise that this isn’t a Greek tragedy, but a Greek comedy.
The clue’s in the credits: this scathing series is created by Jesse Armstrong, veteran of In the Loop, Four Lions and Black Mirror, The Thick of It and That Mitchell and Webb Look. He’s a masterful writer of short, sharp gags, but an equally exquisite crafter of long-form comedy, drawing out pain and sadness to hilariously awkward extremes. He’s in his element in this 10-parter, which charts the gradual crumbling of a wealthy New York dynasty – an epic family drama that combines contemporary relevance and surprising emotional arcs, while perforating every inch of it with machine-gun bursts of profoundly foul-mouthed outbursts.
Brian Cox rants his way through board rooms and living rooms alike as Logan Roy, a media magnate who is nearing his 80th birthday. But when he refuses to name a successor, the whole family is thrown into disarray, sparking a ruthless scramble to change his mind and take up the company’s mantle.
What’s brilliant about the biting satire is that every one of the Logan family members are just the right balance of horrible and pathetic. There’s Connor (Alan Ruck), the eldest, who has spent his wealth by effectively buying a girlfriend, and swans about with her at galas without much thought for anything else – a man who is so shallow that he mistakes that transaction for having some sentimental worth. There’s Siobhan (the always-brilliant Sarah Snook), who channels her hatred for her father into working for Democrat politicians who campaign against everything her father stands for, which inherently includes herself. There’s Roman (Kieran Culkin – nobody does blithe like Kieran Culkin), the hedonistic youngest of the children, who acts out and snorts anything that comes in powder form, yet secretly craves his father’s approval. And there’s Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the second eldest who is in pole inheritance position, thanks to a combination of sheer self-certainty and constant neediness – he wants to be his own success, but also desperately wants his dad to be proud, a killer case of arrogance fuelled by an inferiority complex. And, amidst it all, is Logan, a cantankerous, self-centered bully who needs his children to establish his legacy as the patriarch of an empire, but simultaneously hates all of them.
These simmering pots of conflict take their time to boil over and it’s here that Succession requires some patience: it’s only you begin to giggle at the sheer idiocy on display that you fall into its deceptively finely tuned groove. A large part of that is thanks to Cousin Greg (the adorably blank-faced Nicholas Braun), who is the only likeable one of the bunch. Logan’s great-nephew, he swans in from out of town hoping to make his break with the rich side of the family, but doesn’t have the guile to share their toxic sense of entitlement – and it’s his willingness to go along each relative’s Machiavellian schemes that exposes each of them to us as idiots.
Most stupid of all is Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), an outsider who is engaged to Siobhan and has somehow deluded himself into thinking that he’s marrying into a kind and generous clan. Macfadyen is one of Britain’s finest, but he showcases a comic timing here that is up there with his best work, puncturing what could be scenes of melodrama as he claims tiny successes out of the jaws of inadequacy.
Just at the point when you begin to chuckle along with him, as well as at him, that’s when Succession delivers its killer blow: you unexpectedly start to feel sorry for him too. A confrontation between he and Shiv on their wedding night is a glorious demonstration on how to creep up behind an audience with unexpected emotions, and it pays off with a laugh-out-loud showdown over a glass of wine (one of the few things his family paid for at the nuptials). At the same time, Kendall is working through an emotional hellhole to make his mark in the world – while Roman’s own exploits have explosive consequences that leave them both reeling with shock and confusion, again leaving us strangely torn over how to feel.
The key to all of this lies in the show’s perfectly judged turning point halfway through, when events build up to a vote of no confidence in Logan – a vote carefully orchestrated by Kendall and Roman. Needless to say, things don’t go the way anybody expects, and the result sparks pity and laughter in equal measure. Jeremy Strong’s performance, like Kieran Culkin’s, is a masterclass in deadpan delivery, playing everything so straight that the line between oblivious and incompetence blurs seamlessly into the line between hubris and pathos; each of these bullish adults are infantilised, not only be their father but also by themselves, and there’s a sadness to that petulance, a vulnerability to that dependence, and a brutality to that dominance that Cox and Strong’s interactions unpick with dazzling nuance.
All of this, tellingly, unfolds without the Sex and the City-style glitz of the rich and famous – Succession is a story of heated confrontations behind closed doors and (in one defty choreographed set piece that opens up the layers of each member of this ensemble) prickly family therapy sessions. These farcically stunted humans, shot almost like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, are prisoners of their wealth, not in a way that makes them likeable, noble or deserving of their status – but in a way that humanises them just enough for us to stand spending more than a second in their company. The Season 1 finale, set around the wedding in an extravagant castle, is a jaw-dropping car crash to witness, one that mines the reassuring act of a hug for every poisonous drop of hostility a human can muster. Somewhere between Billions, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Peep Show, Succession deliciously wrong-foots you every time you form an opinion of it – seeing wealthy people being nasty shouldn’t be this gripping or compelling. It’s Greek comedy, dressed as Greek tragedy, but underneath that comedy is another, darker tragedy. You won’t be able to stop watching.
Succession is available on Sky Box Sets until 4th October 2018. Don’t have Sky? You can also watch it online legally on NOW TV, which gives live and on-demand streaming access to Sky’s main TV channels, including FOX UK (The Walking Dead) and Sky Atlantic (Get Shorty), for £7.99 a month – with no contract and a 14-day free trial.