On ‘Succession,’ a Media Mogul Gets the Conniving Family He Deserves

Posted May 31, 2018 1:13 a.m. EDT

There are enough squirm-inducing moments in HBO’s new drama series “Succession,” which debuts June 3, to make you want to hire a therapist to rescue the super rich and super dysfunctional Roy family from themselves. But one scene in the first episode perfectly captures the filial dog-eat-dog dynamic.

It takes place at a pickup baseball game, an ostensibly fun tradition that Logan Roy, the mercurial family patriarch, portrayed by Scottish actor Brian Cox, likes to make his adult children and a few close family associates suffer through for his benefit on his birthday. As the game progresses, Logan’s third son, Roman, a deeply cynical motormouth played by Kieran Culkin, offers the young son of the field’s maintenance manager $1 million if he can hit a home run.

The boy gamely steps to the plate and connects, only to be thrown out at third. It’s early enough in the series that a viewer could be excused for thinking that Roman’s veins are not completely sloshing with ice water and that he might let the kid enjoy a life-altering payday. After all, what’s a million bucks to the ne’er-do-well son of a media titan? Don’t be fooled. Roman feigns sympathy as he tears the check he wrote into tiny pieces and puts it in the boy’s outstretched hand.

“Really good effort. Quite tremendous,” he says, glibly. “So, take this back to your life. It’s a quarter-million. Enjoy.”

A moment later, Logan Roy praises him for his “magnificent effort” and has his security man give the boy the Patek Philippe watch he just received from his daughter’s obsequious boyfriend. After his parents sign a nondisclosure agreement, of course.

Just another day in the warped, transactional life of the Roy family. “The language and the currency of the family is not love, it’s commerce,” said Jeremy Strong, who plays Logan’s eldest son, Kendall, the would-be inheritor of the corporate throne. “I remember something that Jung said, that where love is absent, power fills the vacuum. That was something that I thought about a lot making this show.”

Television shows about rich people being horrible to one another (and to whoever strays into their line of fire) have been a prime-time staple since at least the days of “Dallas.” But “Succession” takes the theme of internecine struggle within a wealthy and powerful family — in this case the one that controls Waystar Royco, a fictional media conglomerate reminiscent of a handful of real-world media conglomerates run by families with names like Murdoch and Redstone — and gives it a twist: Just below the surface of all the Machiavellian machinations and heartbreak and recriminations is a deep reservoir of satire. Whether it comes out through absurd sight gags or the verbal daggers the four Roy sibs throw at each other with abandon, the humor is there — often subtle, occasionally in your face, and almost always dark.

Which is exactly what Jesse Armstrong, the creator, executive producer and showrunner, is going for. “A drama which is too sonorous and self-important is not a true representation of the world, because in a way it gives too much credence to the way that most powerful people portray themselves,” he said. “The reality is that everyone has frustrations and personal relationship problems which are comic, and if you exclude that, I think you’re telling a lie.”

“Succession” had its origins in a different script, one that Armstrong wrote nearly a decade ago in between collaborating with Armando Iannucci on the political satire series “The Thick of It” for the BBC — which he eventually helped adapt into the film “In the Loop”and working on HBO’s “Veep.” That script, for a TV movie, tackled the saga of a real-life media dynasty: the Murdochs. But no one bit.

So Armstrong let the idea simmer. Then he had what writer and director Adam McKay (“The Big Short,” “Anchorman”) calls his “light-bulb moment”: Why focus on one mega-rich media-centric family when there are so many with so much dysfunction to go around?

Having read and loved the Murdoch script, McKay had Armstrong write a script about Lee Atwater for Gary Sanchez Productions, the film and web enterprise he runs with Will Ferrell. So when Armstrong expanded his original idea to use the whole world of dynastic families and consolidated wealth and power as source material, “I just immediately was like, I’m in,” said McKay, who serves as an executive producer for “Succession” and also directed the pilot.

The concept also intrigued another fan of Armstrong’s writing, Casey Bloys, who was on the hunt for a “family show” after being named the president of programming at HBO in 2016, one that could follow in the extra-large footsteps of “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under.” Bloys has an economics degree and name-checks the economist (and New York Times columnist) Paul Krugman in conversation; in “Succession” he saw a gold mine of material.

“Since the 1980s, we as a country have made decisions — tax cuts, deregulation — that have concentrated wealth in a smaller and smaller number of hands. And there are consequences to that,” he said. “One of the things that Jesse pitched to me when he first talked about this was: Every family has dysfunction, right? But when your family has power, and specifically has power within the media, that dysfunction ripples across the nation and in some cases the globe.”

“Succession” is not HBO’s first foray into this territory. In 2014, the network filmed but then passed on a pilot for a show called “The Money,” written by David Milch (“Deadwood”) and starring Brendan Gleeson, about a wealthy (and manipulative) patriarch of a media empire with a dysfunctional family.

Frank Rich, an executive producer on “Succession” who was also attached to that earlier show, notes that it was somewhat eclipsed by the fast-changing media landscape. “'The Money’ pilot was made five years ago and was set in the New York newspaper wars, pre-digital,” he said. “Given all that’s happened in the media world both in terms of content and business since, it’s a different universe from that of the Roys’ Waystar Royco in ‘Succession.'”

“I don’t know the details of what made that particular iteration work or not work,” said Bloys, who was working in HBO’s comedy division at the time. “But I think in general what makes Jesse’s take stand apart is, when you’re talking about a family like this, you have to come at it with a little bit of a satirical eye because this combination of money and power, it’s a little bit ridiculous to us all.”

The ridiculousness can sneak up on you. In the second episode, Logan Roy is hospitalized after suffering a stroke. With Kendall and Roman vying to step into the role of CEO as their father lays potentially dying, their sister, the aptly nicknamed Shiv (short for Siobhan, played by Australian actress Sarah Snook) is surprised when her boyfriend, Tom, an executive in Waystar Royco’s amusement park division, drops to his knees in the ICU and presents her with a ring. Matthew Macfadyen (“MI:5,” “Howard’s End”), who plays Tom, toggles between conniving striver and hapless corporate shill, so the cosmically inappropriate timing of his marriage proposal is both funny and pathetic. (As is Shiv’s reaction: “Seriously? What is it about my dad dying in a sterile environment that screams big romantic gesture to you?”)

Armstrong is pleased that his satirical impulses sometimes make viewers feel guilty for laughing. “Fair warning, there will be more queasy moments when you might find yourself laughing and you don’t know where one’s sympathies are meant to land,” he said. It’s not so easy to tell. One minute you’re laughing at Alan Ruck as Connor, Logan’s son by his first wife, freaking out and “firing” the entire kitchen staff at a black-tie event honoring his dad. The next you’re wondering what kind of power game Marcia, Logan’s third and current wife, played by Hiam Abbass, is up to.

The intensity of the relationships within the Roy clan, the feeling that they all have to watch their backs, is what McKay hopes “Succession” captures. “What we liked about ‘The Sopranos’ was that it did a great job of playing with weight and complexity, but at the same time could be screamingly funny,” he said. “They never adjusted their shooting style for the comedy at all. And we really wanted that for this. We didn’t ever want it to feel snappy or angular like a comedy; we wanted to play it very real, very sincere. I think there’s more sadness behind this dialogue.”

And to add one more layer to it all, Cox hears echoes of King Lear in Logan Roy’s relationship with his children. “The difference between Lear and Logan is that Logan tries to take it all back,” he said. “Logan is afraid of becoming a victim of his situation. He’s kind of a mystery to his children and to himself. We look at Rupert Murdoch and we think we know him but we forget that he’s a human being. That’s what’s interesting to me about these characters: They’re flesh and blood.”

If there is a takeaway in “Succession,” it could be Snook’s observation that “having all the money and all the power in the world is not necessarily a good thing, especially if you don’t know what to do with it.”

Armstrong protests that if he could boil the show down to a simple message, he wouldn’t have bothered making it. “Without being highfalutin, it is a piece of art, not a piece of propaganda,” he said, before adding: “I think it’s interesting how the personality and values of one human being, even in a free society, can cast a very long shadow over an organization and over a culture.”

McKay is slightly more succinct. “I would say, This has never ended well.”