Watching the very wealthy Roy siblings scheme and manipulate their way through their father’s business empire is not unlike watching a nature documentary where a large prey animal stalks and kills an unsuspecting antelope. It’s fascinating and kind of awful at the same time. “Succession” is filled with unlikeable, selfish people who behave terribly in almost every situation but who also happen to be completely engaging.
The action centers on corporate mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his adult children Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Connor (Alan Ruck), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv (Sarah Snook). The story begins with Logan’s pending retirement from his international media and entertainment conglomerate Waystar Royco, a plan he’s having second thoughts about, and the announcement of Kendall to the top job. But first there is Logan’s birthday party. The siblings smell blood in the water and the machinations begin. Kendall’s ascension makes Roman and Shiv uneasy, as does their father’s desire to change the family trust to include his wife. Some backstabbing and deal-making takes place and then a crisis throws everything into chaos.
The writing is sharp but it’s the performances that make this series stand-out. Strong is excellent as Kendall who is a competent presence in the boardroom one minute and in the next, a self-doubting mess, too eager to please Logan. Strong plays Kendall’s insecurities with skill and his interactions with Culkin and Snook are filled with a combination of nasty sibling rivalry and brotherly love. He makes you like Kendall but just a little.
It’s this push-pull of engrossing and repellent that drives the show’s appeal and Culkin does it best. Roman is a smug wise-guy who barely wants to work but still craves the COO role at Waystar Royco. He smirks his way through almost every interaction and punctuates most conversations with quips that are charming and insulting at the same time.
Shiv, who uses the influence her father’s empire affords her to be a power player in Washington D.C., is so accustomed to her affluent life that she is completely unconcerned with the struggles others might be facing. But then she has a few genuinely affectionate moments with her fiancé Tom, and she is almost redeemed. Tom, played by Matthew Macfadyen, is a surprise because he starts off the series tripping over himself to fawn at the feet of Logan but then shows a canny ability to use others to gain power. Connor, the eldest Roy, is seemingly uninterested in the family business but when he’s put in charge of Waystar Royco’s annual charity gala, his particular form of unhinged reveals itself. And then there’s cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) who appears inept but is still managing to swim with the sharks. His scenes are a highlight of every episode.
As the head of the disagreeable clan, Logan has his own bad-tempered ways of dealing with his children’s manipulations, including using Kendall’s office as a bathroom. His change of heart about retiring sets the stage for the show’s major plot but the strength of “Succession” lies in the irresistibly awful behavior of its characters.
“Succession” is on HBO.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.