Succession was one of the more polarizing shows of 2018 among critics and the plebian masses. It’s been called everything from “the best show on television” to largely meh to utterly uninteresting. The audience retention graph for my year end list of shows and episodes drops off like the 1929 stock market as soon as I start talking about Succession, yet The Ringer has launched after-shows and Succession weeks on their site, so there must be some people who care deeply for this show, right? Right??
It’s not hard to see why the show elicits such a wide breadth of reactions. In one moment, we’re deep in the weeds of the business strategy called a bear hug (linked here because I didn’t know what the fuck it was either when I saw it) and in the next, Macauley Culkin’s little brother is jerking off to the skyline of the Big Apple.
The whole series is shot in the shaky-cam style of Adam McKay’s The Big Short, who also directed the pilot of Succession.
It gives the series a feeling somewhere between mockumentary comedies like The Office and the intense family and emotional drama of something like Sharp Objects or Big Little Lies. Which is to say, the style of the show doesn’t give you a firmer sense of what you’re watching but only confuses the tone even more. It’s most likely analog is actually probably a more serious Arrested Development, which almost feels like too much of an oxymoron to even mention here. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
At the peak of its season one powers, Succession blended its comedy and drama to create a pointed satire of capitalism and the 1% of the 1%, while also painting its human characters with empathy. The story it told was about its characters trying to prove that they could stand on their own two feet and that there was more to them than just being born lucky. Now in its second season, Succession has turned its attention fully to its namesake and the idea of legacy.
The Roy family patriarch, Logan (played by Brian Cox), finds himself at a crossroads. In a meeting with fellow William Stryker actor Danny Hustin, he’s told that his best option is to sell his company. It’s a media conglomerate that will soon be obsolete in a changing world, which is definitely not something that I find to be a personal attack as a TV critic.
His options are sell out, make a ton of money, and call it quits or to stand his ground, adapt, and fight. Unfortunately, fighting means he needs to name an heir (or a successor if you want to be a little on the nose) and his family is a grab bag of incompetent morons and unruly children. Kendall (played by Jeremy Strong, also in The Big Short) has just tried to take Logan out and failed miserably. He spends most of the episode with his tail between his legs, holding doors for underlings, whimpering, and just overall acting like Buster Bluth in timeout.
Roman, the urban masturbator mentioned earlier, has done very little in his career other than blow up a rocket upon launch and make snarky comments. The oldest of the Roy siblings, played by Alan Ruck, in what must be a version of Cameron Frye from an alternate dimension where he has even more money and is dumber than his counterpart, who thought that putting a car in reverse would erase its milage.
That leaves Logan’s only daughter, Shiv. She spent most of the first season supporting a Bernie Sanders-esque political rival of Logan’s. She’s the most competent and intelligent of the bunch, but that’s a bit of a conflict of interest.
Of course, the epic failures that define his children can all be traced back to Logan himself. His dominating personality probably got him his empire, but it also led to the creation of an intimidated family of yes men. When he holds a meeting to discuss his dilemma in the family’s beach house, he has to abandon the group discussion in favor of one-on-ones because of the damage his family politics have wreaked. Nobody feels safe to say what they actually think when somebody could swoop in and capitalize off of it.
This rot at the core of the family dynamic is symbolized by the overbearing and persistent stench that haunts the house. The only character immune from it is Shiv, who has tried desperately to remove herself from the company and family. That removal wasn’t because she didn’t want her father’s approval, but because she’d never received it before.
When Logan finally asks her to be named as his successor, it’s a feeling she can’t help but feel is a trap because it’s too good to be true. Even we, as an audience, can’t tell for sure if Logan is playing a game here, or if he’s genuine.
And again, that’s the ultimate strength of Succession. That confusing meld of comedy, drama, serious, and silly gives the show a unique tone that treats its characters as overgrown children playing with their toys in the sandbox out back, just replacing the sandbox with the landscape of corporate capitalism and the toys with billions of dollars to spend on cocaine, hookers, and mergers. But other than that, it’s exactly the same.