Underrated/ Overlooked: Adam Keleman on Succession

Adam Keleman asks you to give this tragicomic HBO show about white male privilege a chance.

Sifting through the robust, limitless outpost of television programming this year, the one title I couldn’t quite shake was HBO’s Succession, and all its unheralded, gleeful treachery. Given the precarious state of America right now, with an array of shifting alliances (wink, Trump’s longtime perjurious attorney Michael Cohen, wink), 2018 might be the year of corruption, and/or maneuvering back-stabbers. Hence, my coming to the conclusion Succession is the perfect television series to reflect 2018: white greed, absolute power, nepotism, behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, and an all-encompassing media empire. And did I mention it’s a comedy?

Succession is centered on a duplicitous family harnessing hundreds of millions of dollars, running one of the largest media companies in the world, Waystar Royco. It’s basically a documentary about the Murdoch family — yet purely staged and fictionalized. The CEO and patriarch of the family, Logan Roy (played by the intense, towering Brian Cox), is on the verge of retirement and signing over the company to his second eldest son, Kendall (Jeremy Strong). Just to fill you in: Kendall is a rehabbed drug abuser who’s so desperate for success and redemption, he’ll do anything to achieve it, even undermining his lionized father and family. The other two brothers are slippery; the absentminded philanthropist Conor (Alan Ruck) and the closeted, egomaniacal Roman (Kieran Culkin) pretty much follow whomever is in the power position at any given time. And then there are the two women of the family, the smart and crafty daughter Shiv (played by the utterly masterful Sarah Snook), and Logan’s second wife, the mysterious Marcia (Hiam Abbass). Even though the men superficially have most of the company/family control, Shiv and Marcia play the role of puppet masters, elegantly enacting their plans for the family in a subtle yet underhanded manner. Also, I cannot forget the naive bumbling cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), who finds himself in questionably legal positions, slowly making his way up the ladder doing favors for the family. Just imagine a modern-day Game of Thrones minus the dragons and metal armor: that’s Succession in a nutshell.

On the surface, Succession is about everything I hate in a popular culture obsessed with upholding the straight white male patriarchy — centered on a squarely marketed, bro-y Murdoch-like family, featuring rich people run amok and an abundance of middlebrow corporate drama. Even the main poster of the series pictures all five family members (four men, one woman) stoically posing for a photo in front of a baroque painting with the tagline “Take What’s Yours,” a slogan that could possibly double for a Proud Boys mantra. The artwork somewhat misses the satire of it all, which is the true joy of the show. I can’t get enough of these bumbling entitled brats duking it out over the wording of their father’s will or, as company stocks take a snow dive, feeding each other to the wolves. It’s the calculated jostling for control that exemplifies the depraved state of the world today, where compassion and sincerity are left as roadkill en route to power and money.

What makes this show truly special is the way it finely balances its tone, veering from drama to comedy in a split second; often conversations between family members change in an instant from comedic, lighthearted insults to devastating blows. For instance, the Thanksgiving episode finds the sprawling family taking turns giving thanks around the dinner table, but mostly their subtle dinner-table chat comes off as blistering barbs flung at one another. The unease felt in the room is so intense, you want to squirm, laugh and cry, all at once. The British creator Jesse Armstrong — a skilled comedy writer who came up the ranks working on the humorously lacerating political farce The Thick of It and the awkward buddy comedy Peep Show — expertly weaves the sometimes dark, loony humor into the Shakespearean drama of the Roy family with measured plotting.

It’s easy to draw a connection between these fictionalized characters and real world counterparts (Shiv could be a stand-in for a more liberal-minded Ivanka Trump), but ultimately what brings me back for more is the humanity displayed through the satiric veil. Behind all the entitlement and mounds of money are people just trying to seek approval and love from their father, without compromising their sanity and well-being in the process. As the series progresses, you’ll find the family trying to one-up each other as business deals sour due to their own self-destruction, giving way to new relationships. Kendall’s past (and current) addictions particularly haunt his pursuit of taking over as Waystar Royco CEO in desperately absurd ways. [*Possible Spoiler here*] The finale finds a drugged-out Kendall knee-deep in mud, eventually begging for forgiveness and crawling back to his father, the man he has viciously tried to undercut for the entire season. Revenge is humbling, to say the least.

Even though some might find the selfish, privileged antics of the Roy family way too triggering in the time of Trump and Murdoch, it’s the only means we have to see them suffer deliriously until Robert Mueller brings the smackdown.

Adam Keleman is a writer and director based in Los Angeles. His work has shown at the SXSW Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, Nashville FF, and New Orleans FF. As a film journalist and critic, he has written for SOMA Magazine, AOL Moviefone, Slant and Little Joe. Adam’s short film Long Days was a Vimeo Staff Pick and won the HammerToNail Short Film Contest. He was also awarded a Jerome Foundation production grant and Film Independent AbelCine grant for his debut feature film Easy Living, which premiered at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival and will be distributed by Gravitas Ventures in September. Adam is currently developing several projects for film and TV.