Succession Review: HBO Satire of Wealthy Elite More Dark than Comical

Brian Cox and the rest of the ensemble channel the Murdoch family in HBO's Succession.

The Roy family in Succession
Photo: HBO

Critics and viewers alike have arrived at the same conclusion after watching the first episode of Succession, HBO’s dark satire of the uber-wealthy Roy family and the media conglomerate it owns, Waystar Royco. “Is this another version of the Bluths?”

In a manner of speaking, yes. The elderly patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) may very well be cut from the same gold-laced cloth as George Bluth, Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), and his children — Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Connor (Alan Ruck) — fare no better than the feckless Arrested Development family.

Yet the Roys are also an indictment of the Murdochs, Trumps, and Kushners of the world, according to Cox and director Adam McKay. Along with creator and writer Jesse Armstrong (The Thick of It, In the Loop, Peep Show), the show has made it very clear that Cox’s Logan is modeled on former News Corp. head Rupert Murdoch. They’ve also bluntly conceded to the observation that the Roy children are meant to dramatize the real-world power struggle that ensued following Murdoch’s departure from the reins of his media conglomerate.

In that way, Logan’s struggle to cope with his birthday and his impending retirement in the premiere episode, “Celebration” feels very much like a lifted-from-the-headlines story. But Succession is supposed to be a satire, right? One would think so, between Armstrong’s writing for Armando Iannucci’s brilliant Veep precursors and penchant for surreal comedy in Peep Show, and McKay’s silly-to-serious range with films like Anchorman and The Big Short. And to their credit, the first episode (the only one McKay directed) includes just enough humor to balance out the family drama-induced outrageousness.

Ad – content continues below

During the first 15 minutes alone, Succession swings wildly between brutally real (a disoriented Logan relieves himself in a hallway after mistaking it for a bathroom) and patently funny (Kendall pumps himself up in a limo before a doomed deal) moments. And then there’s Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun), Logan’s useless great-nephew who, after getting stoned before his first day working at a family-owned theme park, cusses out a bunch of kids and pukes into his mask. Much of this is amusing, of course, but it’s also quite absurd.

And this very well may be the show’s most glaring issue. Absurdity is great, especially when its used to strike the right chords, at the right time, in a program billed as satire. However, Succession swings wildly between the two distinct poles of humor and drama from the get-go, and as the season progresses (seven of 10 episodes were made available for review), the former is abandoned more often in favor of the latter. As a result, many who start watching because of the expansive comedy credits shared by those behind the camera, or because of all the Arrested Development comparisons, may find themselves disappointed by the shift.

Then again, audiences may be willing to grant Succession some amnesty for this otherwise distracting tonal shift. It’s meant to be a satire of the ridiculously wealthy families of the modern era whose holdings, based on generations of inheritance, grant them a level of elitism not seen in almost a century. The results of these actual power dynamics have dramatically affected the world in political, financial and social ways, and not always for the better.

So while giggling at the Bluths’ latest failures in Arrested Development once appealed to ardent TV watchers, these jokes no longer seem as funny as they once were (and not just because of the sexual misconduct allegations against Tambor, and the cast’s controversial New York Times interview regarding the subject). Whenever the Roys royally screw something up, it never serves as the setup for another punchlines. Instead, their failings seem to advance their careers and wealth even further along at the expense of other parties, and that’s not funny at all.

Rating:

3 out of 5