The Daily Stream: Succession Proves Watching Wealthy Elites Self-Destruct Is Irresistible

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Series: "Succession"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: HBO's critically acclaimed comedy-drama "Succession" is, very simply, a show about family. Sure, the Roys are the epitome of the 1% and spend the series vying for control of Waystar Royco, the international media conglomerate created by their aging patriarch, Logan Roy (Brian Cox). But that's true of any family, right? Okay, fair enough, I'll put it this way: "Succession" is a Shakespearean drama with less bloodshed, more snark, and vulgarities dialed up to 100.

The pitch that finally caught my attention was, fittingly, a comparison to HBO's crowning jewel, "Game of Thrones": "Succession" is like if you plucked the Lannister family out of Westeros and dropped them into corporate America. Cox's Logan is like a more bloodthirsty Tywin Lannister, faced with handing off his family legacy to children he doesn't trust with upholding all he's worked for. We spend the series watching them duke it out, make big maneuvers, and try their hardest to take control whilst being crushed under their father's gaze — and the heavier weight of their own personal baggage.

Why It's Essential Viewing

After a night of dining with the Roy family, watching them squirm as their tensions bubble to the surface, overplay their hands in panic, and ultimately self destruct in conversation, a smirking character tells Kendall Roy: "Watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on planet Earth." And that about sums it up. 

By the time this scene emerges, well into the series' second season, you'll cackle maniacally, already knowing this truth for yourself. The Roys can't help but fall apart at the seams, which turns out to be endlessly entertaining (if, occasionally, distressing). I for one put the series off until well into the early days of quarantine, and I'll admit it took a few episodes to really suck me in. But once the Roys are in full throttle, the opening theme evokes a bubbly, heart-racing buzz, which the series continues to match with its sharpest, most intense scene. "Succession" is that kind of incredible.

To give you a hint of the show's writing pedigree, it comes from creator Jesse Armstrong, who co-created "Peep Show," "Fresh Meat" and "Babylon." The first season of "Succession" introduces the ruthless but aging patriarch Logan and his quartet of disappointing children: his eldest son from his first marriage, Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), who is prone to delusions of grandeur including an oddly familiar presidential-run; his second son and presumed heir, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), who is struggling with substance-abuse issues and frequently fails to impress his father; Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), the youngest son, who has a desire for power despite being ridiculously immature and utterly unqualified; and Siobhan "Shiv" Roy (Sarah Snook), a left-leaning political fixer whom her father dubs "not as smart as she thinks." 

Approaching his 80th birthday by the start of the first season and presumed to be on the verge of retirement, Logan shocks the family with the announcement that he has no intention to step down, refusing to hand off the company, as planned, to Kendall. And so the games begin: if Kendall isn't ready now, will he ever be? Or is it time to look for a successor elsewhere?

With a premise like that, "Succession" easily masquerades as an hour-long drama (and certainly delivers on both quiet character contemplation and explosive tension), but the series is first and foremost a comedy. Its nasty, biting satire married with cleverly plotted drama means we can smoothly ricochet from the tense logistics of an investment deal to executives crawling around on the floor, eating sausages to please their terrifying tyrant of a boss. Whatever it takes to move up the corporate ladder, amirite?

Hating the Roys Is Loving Them

In a lot of ways, "Succession" is a tough sell. A show about the inner workings of a media conglomerate doesn't sound like the most thrilling venture — even less so, given that it exclusively zeroes in on the ultra-wealthy elite and their bids for grander power. If we wanted to watch rich people blatantly disregard the rest of the world and blithely crush the working class beneath them, couldn't we just flick on the news? It doesn't help that the Roy family is so clearly a stand-in for the Murdochs, with a dash of Trump thrown in for good measure (they even have their own Fox news stand-in and an idiotic presidential run). The sharpest one-liners and most compelling character constructions all hit super close to home — and by home, I meant the most frustrating, crumbling remains of society. And still, somehow, it's both watchable and consistently thrilling.

The show's biggest draw is all it accomplishes with its characters. Obviously this gaggle of rich elites are deeply unlikeable, and the show makes no attempts to prove otherwise. The first episode sees Roman infamously offer a young-working class kid $1 million if he can hit a home run during an impromptu baseball game. His parents looking on, stunned by the life-changing amount of money, have no choice but to allow the scene to play out — and of course, crushingly, the kid doesn't hit the home run and Roman laughs the ordeal off.

So without a doubt, the Roys are a despicable bunch, making it all the more startling when you find yourself slipping towards sympathy for their darkest moments. The magic of this is wrapped up in both the show's writing and brilliant performances, which grant the Roys and co. pathos, but never excuse them for their general awfulness. They aren't let off the hook; we simply grow to understand them. Inner struggles aside you never lose sight of who they are in action. "Succession" is quick to rip the rug from beneath our feet with a wince-worthy one liner from Roman, a conscious selfish act from Shiv, or a life-altering mistake from Kendall — all of which drastically hurt others, with little consequences to the Roys themselves.

The Logan Roy of It All

Ironically, the Roy family being the worst is the paradox of Logan's existence. He wants a successor, but the second he marks one of his children as next in line — even mentally — the gears shift and he defaults to attack mode. Logan does not want to be succeeded, in part because of who he'd be handing his legacy — his life's work — over to. For all that Logan is (brash, flippant, cruel, generally despicable, etc), he is somewhat of a self-made man. And becoming a billionaire meant bringing his children into a world of mansions, silver platters and inheritances. They've never worked for anything of their own, which he loathes, because it means they're not enough like him.

While Kendall and Roman have never worked outside of a company with their names on it, Shiv has at least made a career in politics. But in all fairness, she did so with the power of her name: the wealth and all the many benefits it affords. The way Logan sees it, all they have came from him. So why should he hand over his company as well? And at the same time, the way the business works, Logan does need a successor. He can't stand the thought of giving it away to someone outside of the family, just as he can't stand any of his children. He can name a successor for all of five seconds before he wants to utterly destroy them both out of spite and to prove that they aren't worthy. So how can the show end, if not them rising up against him? Logan himself is fascinating enough; throw the endless power struggle into the mix, and the show's greatness just multiplies.

The Odd Couples of Succession

The other big fun of "Succession" is in the pair-ups, highlighting the best of a top-tier cast. Tom Wambsgan (Matthew Macfadyen), Shiv's fiancé, has absolutely zero chance when it comes to the actual family business — sure, he has a pretty senior position in the Parks and Cruises department, but no one takes him seriously, least of all the woman marrying him. But Macfadyen gets his moments to shine when paired with Roy's distant cousin, the bumbling Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun). I'd be remiss to not mention this wonderful duo, who strike up a very odd sort of camaraderie. 

To be fair, Tom spends most of his scenes bullying poor Greg into submission to prop himself up. It's likely very cathartic, since Tom himself is the Roys' favorite punching bag. But despite that element of Tom and Greg's relationship, there's a surprising warmth to the "friendship," perhaps because they share a position as outsiders. Tom is marrying into the family and Greg is cousin of the Roys, but neither of them are in and they'll never have the family name to pretend that they are. Plus, they're both new to the world of Waystar and the psychological mind games of Logan Roy, and it's occasionally too much to bear, so they seek solace in one another. Yes, that solace sometimes comes in the form of really severe bullying, but we all have our ways of coping!

And that's just one of many incredible, unlikely dynamics, though there's plenty more to say about the simmering, almost maternal relationship between Roman and Gerri or the tension of Shiv and her stepmother, Marsha. But if you want to experience them for yourself — and you very much should — you'll have to check out "Succession."