TV has been endlessly fascinated with exploring the struggles of the rich in America. From “Arrested Development” to “Schitt’s Creek” and “Billions” there is a lot of entertainment focused on the wealthiest 1% of our country. However, no show has been more truthful in its depiction of wealth, nor more savage in its issues with it than “Succession” from HBO. The new series from executive producers Adam McKay, Will Farrell, and showrunner/creator Jesse Armstrong follows the Roy family after the patriarch of the family suffers intense medical issues. The family is a blend of the Murdochs, Disneys, and Kennedys, both exalted on high but demonized by many. The story is Shakespearian at times, but like any tragedy contains levels of comedy and hilarity. This makes “Succession” one of the most endearing shows of 2018.
Last night, the finale of “Succession” cleared the board for the start of the next season, while simultaneously wrapping the 1st season as perfectly as we might have asked for. We got a wedding between Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Tom (Matthew McFayden) that will be a very open marriage. Logan (Brian Cox) maneuvered his troops for one final defense of his company. Roman (Kieran Culkin) blew up a rocket ship. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) pulled a Chapaquidick. Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) revealed he has documents about a pedophilia ring. Oh, and Connor (Alan Ruck) began his push to become POTUS. This sounds like a soap opera. This is a soap opera. The story justifies every single one of these storylines as logical conclusions to this season. Even more important, each actor rose to the occasion.
This show is jam-packed with talent, so it’s hard to begin. To me, Snook and Strong are the real standouts, both giving the most morally complex performances on the show. Strong is who we identify with the most, and for the most part is the moral center of the show. His actions often shake up the rest of the family. In true Don Jr. fashion, he believes he’s ready for the limelight. Yet his incompetence is breathtaking. Strong puffs up Kendall with both earned and drug-induced confidence, only to have him crash further than any other character. He’s a child in some ways and a brilliant businessman at different times. Yet despite this, he seems destined never to gain control.
Snook’s performance also forces questions on top of questions. She’s much funnier than Kendall and gets moments of real happiness. Shiv also is the most independently successful of the family and shows actual promise. Her arc takes her to the dark side against the family, only to corrupt the incorruptible. Her influence and gamesmanship are extraordinary. Yet at the root of it all, Snook imbues Shiv with a vulnerability and internal struggle. She’s unsure of what she wants, despite being good at everything. In some ways, this is even more interesting than the loveable loser Kendall. This gives Snook a clear path to become one of the best actresses on television period.
The rest of the cast is outstanding as well. Culkin is the funniest character on television now, and also a monster. It’s as if Buster from “Arrested Development” and the Id of Jordan Belfort had a baby. Cox pulls your attention like gravity when he’s on the screen, and his phoenix-like rise over the season is excellent. Braun and Macfayden could almost feel like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, yet each has impressive arcs of their own. Macfayden, in particular, is emotionally devasting to watch when he turns it on. There might not be a character that draws your empathy more on television.
The writing is top-notch, and the dialogue singes. The Roy clan will make the characters from “Veep” ask if it’s necessary to be so vulgar. It is mean-spirited and will make you wonder if you’ve ever really cursed before. This gives the show a nearly endless train of humor that helps to break up the negativity that builds in other areas.
The mechanics of each episode creates surprising thrills, especially after episode 4. The series takes a few episodes to figure itself out, but from “Sad Sack Wasp Trap” on, it is a confident show. The combination of thrilling storytelling and pithy dialogue gives the show an upbeat pace. Overall, this writers room has figured out something that shows like “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad” figured out before it: you need to get some comedy in your drama. This blend makes the series a potential contender to be one of the ten best shows on TV.
Overall, “Succession” will not be for everyone. Many will say they have no empathy for any characters. None of these people are likable. That doesn’t mean that you have to be likable to be enjoyable to watch. We collectively made a show about a murderous, meth cooking egotistical man into one of the great shows in television history. We should spare time for the Roys. They’re only the most exciting commentary and take on wealth in America in the past decade of television.