In a world where shiny silver-bullet shows such as “Star Trek: Discovery” aren’t enough to keep viewers glued to screens, in 2018 there’s “Succession,” a story about one of the most dysfunctional families in the entertainment industry, told so zesty and true-to-life, you’d swear “Saturday Night Live” drew a paycheck for reporting on it.
Now in its second season on HBO, the family drama is so sharp, breezy and funny, you’d think this series that’s enjoyed critical acclaim (three Golden Globes and a Drama Series Emmy nomination) was produced by the same team that brought us “Transparent.”
And it really is.
You only have to watch episode five to realize that what you are watching isn’t a non-fiction dramatization — it’s a retelling, albeit not an entirely accurate one, of a real-life family meeting. It’s a contrast that reveals the series’ greatest strength, and its greatest weakness.
Bruce Karatz, the patriarch of the entire family, has died. Naturally, the extended clan is still roiling about what will happen to the majority shareholder position in the company after his death. They’re also still on the phone bickering, drunk-dialing each other and trying to form alliances across tribes, and that’s what really holds the series together. This family is practically Shakespearean in the volume of strife, conflict and enmity they’ve stirred up. In short, they’re a ticking time bomb with so much conflict and the most self-sacrificing father ever.
The tension and chaos is so great, it’s made scary and impossible to shake its influence on the show.
The family elders have aged out of their eccentric sort of power, and now the torch is passed to the sons, played by Alan Cummings (he does a killer Kevin Bacon) and Kieran Culkin (a dead ringer for Dennis Quaid as Andrew), and the granddaughters, played by Ivana Milicevic (Geoffrey Rush from “Shine”) and Sarah Snook (from “Ballers”). The younger versions are more naive and innocent, and want no part of their grumbling, selfish, awkward and unlikable forebears. The elder generation either haughtily retorts or simply stands by idly, watching it all go down.
But while the entire family is watching, none of them really have any say in who wins the power. No one really cares.
Still, their every decision is scrutinized like ever. Their egos are taken down to the gravitational pull and measured just as carefully. The contestants on “Survivor” would approve. While you might think the complexity of the story would inhibit it from creating a Season 5, “Succession” remains a very hard show to take a dramatic break from, and that’s what has driven critics to its dismay.
The ambitious creators of the series, Jesse Armstrong and Jesse Peretz, have received a great deal of praise for putting together what’s effectively a spy story about a fictional multinational company. Instead of a plot, it’s a series of battles in the same corner. You’re entertained and flummoxed until the day finally comes and you wonder where the bloodletting is going to end.
There are real-life examples of extended families banding together to help one another out during some of the nastiest moments. That doesn’t happen here. It becomes boring and repetitious and all the more so because the fight is never truly given up. The entire energy of “Succession” centers on what to do about this situation. And while viewers would agree that everyone should stand by their family during hard times, there’s no end to the number of characters who, for some odd reason, feel the urge to lash out.
The biggest problem is that everyone is easily swayed and the script doesn’t try to filter out any of the bogus internal motive behind decisions, especially when it comes to favoritism and lies. There is real emotional pain, but the narrative doesn’t have enough quality moments to balance out the shadows of truth. When a character like Jackie Altman, played by Kathleen Robertson, shows up as a dead ringer for Gwyneth Paltrow, you can’t help but think it was a hallucination.
“Succession” is one of the best shows in HBO’s lineup and is definitely worth a look every Sunday night. But unfortunately, it’s too much