I have never ever watched a TV series I have enjoyed more than Succession (HBO). There’s stuff I’d put in the same league, maybe — Fauda, Babylon Berlin, Band of Brothers, Utopia, Gomorrah, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and so on — but absolutely nothing beats it. It is, quite simply, a work of pure, undiluted genius.
Which wasn’t what I expected when my friend Toby recommended it to me a few weeks ago. ‘It’s about this media dynasty, a bit like the Murdochs. And the kids spend their whole time scheming and competing as to which one is eventually going to take over the company from the bullying patriarch Logan Roy,’ he said. This all sounded a bit grown-up, earnest and worthy to me.
But Succession is none of those things, as perhaps I should have guessed from the fact it was created by Jesse Armstrong, co-author of perhaps the most enduring and wickedly funny of all the Noughties sitcoms, Peep Show. Apart from seeming to know his subject matter inside out — and the world of limos, helicopters, boardroom meetings, weekends in the Hamptons and Bohemian Grove-style retreats is all depicted with luscious plausibility — Armstrong has an instinct always to go for the joke, even in the darkest, most inappropriate moments.
The embodiment of this tendency is the permanently wisecracking youngest son Roman (Kieran Culkin). Proudly shallow, puerile, flippant, uncultured, cynical, he might quite possibly be the brightest of the kids, but has chosen to squander his brainpower on acerbic, Peep Show-style one-liners which I’d dearly love to quote to you because they’re so brilliant and colorful and hilariously on point. Problem is, that would involve sullying my viewer experience with a pen and paper, and, unfortunately, the series is still too cultish to have yet acquired sites where dedicated fans do this job for you.
As with all Succession’s richly drawn, exquisitely realized characters, you at once adore and empathize with Roman, while yet being utterly repelled by him. The only daughter Siobhan (‘Shiv’) — played by Sarah Snook — is the most conventionally sympathetic. She’s smart, she’s pretty, she’s the least perverted and weird of the bunch. But Armstrong and his writing team are sufficiently canny not to fall into that predictable ‘cleverest, strongest most capable character is the female’ trope. Maybe Shiv should inherit; maybe she’s not as clever as she thinks she is. Nothing in this series can ever be taken for granted and your loyalties continually shift, even within episodes. It’s unsettling, thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff that leaves you, by the end, in a puddle of overwrought exhaustion. How could TV about boardroom skullduggery possibly be quite this involving and exciting?
Well, apart from the first-rate casting and acting — Harriet Walter, for example, in surely her career best as Logan’s emotionally distant upper-class ex-wife — and the outrageously inventive dialogue and endless acid banter, I think its secret is that these people feel like actual members of your family.
Just like real family, these people don’t hold back. Never, ever, at any stage, do you hear anyone say the polite thing, the quotidian thing, the tasteful thing, the make-conversation thing, or even the explain-the-plot thing. Everyone is at it, always, hammer and tongs: squashing with blunt putdowns or vicious sarcasm; protesting the closest friendship even as they lie, undermine and betray. Au fond, sure, they love one another deeply — but they only ever unite when the whole world is ranged against them. The rest of the time they’re having far too much fun destroying one another and smiling while they do it.
Logan Roy (the patriarch) is a King Lear-style gift of a role for Brian Cox. The character (inspired, I’m guessing, by the restless neophilia of Tennyson’s Ulysses) is at once so mercurial, opaque and manipulative that you never quite know who you’re going to get: bellowing bully, selectively deaf valetudinarian, sly old fox, seducer, gut-instinct deal-maker, ruthless fixer and, very rarely — which explains so much — loving Dad.
And I’ve barely space to mention the plethora of hilarious complete-dick characters, such as Matthew Macfadyen’s drippingly insincere Tom and his idiot-savant whipping boy Greg. As with Peep Show, you hate them yet you love them. Nor have I discussed the fantastically realistic drug and party scenes, or the crazy locations (the Hungarian boar hunt), or the jokes and set pieces (the Scottish soccer club; Kendall’s rap) or the epic drama. Really, it’s so good it has left me lost for words. Just watch it.