HBO's 'Succession' season 2 finds a way to make morally bankrupt rich, white people fun

Despite a plot that seems far too close to home, this show is fantastic and somehow not incredibly depressing.
Image: The cast HBO's "Succession."
The cast of HBO's "Succession."HBO
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By Ani Bundel

HBO has an uncanny ability to convince people to watch shows that on paper seem eminently skippable. A show about the explosion at Chernobyl became the most watched docudrama of the year. Dragons, fantasy outfits, wolves and magic? The biggest property the channel has ever aired. “Succession,” a show about morally bankrupt rich, white people, hell-bent on destroying America for profit? Got those already, thanks. But despite a plot that seems far too close to home, this show is fantastic and somehow not incredibly depressing. Season two, which premiered Sunday night, is even better than the first season.

“Succession” is the same story that sold HBO on “Game of Thrones” back in the day: a behind-the-scenes look at the drama of powerful families fighting for power and control.

Make no mistake, there is a formula to this success. “Succession” is the same story that sold HBO on “Game of Thrones” back in the day: a behind-the-scenes look at the drama of powerful families fighting for power and control. It was not the only series to air last year based on Rupert Murdoch’s empire, and premiered within weeks of “Press,” the BBC’s take on the same material. But where “Press” concerned itself far more with the actual business of shaping the news, “Succession” treats the fictional Roy family’s media holdings, including the Fox News-like ATN, the way “Game of Thrones” treats the Iron Throne — as a mere object to be fought over. It’s the fight that’s interesting, not the money.

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The first season of “Succession” was a parable of the Murdoch clan and the NewsCorp empire. Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the founder and CEO of the media conglomerate Waystar Royco, is the rapidly aging family patriarch, who suffers a stroke on his 80th birthday. Anticipating his demise, Roy’s four kids start rearranging the deck chairs for the inevitable moment he drops dead. Connor (Alan Ruck), is from his first marriage while Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Siobhan aka Shiv (Sarah Snook) are from his second. Roy’s third wife Marcy (Hiam Abbass), has blessedly not added to the lineup.

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HBO has often lead storytelling trends; it was doing prestige TV shows like “Deadwood” before anyone else and “The Sopranos” introduced the concept of the anti-hero years before Don Draper arrived on “Mad Men.” But “Succession” has no anti-hero for audiences to love, or rather to love despite their faults. No one in the Roy family is remotely likable, not even those who marry into it. On occasion, there are moments of sympathy or vulnerability, but whatever trauma they experienced growing up fails to make them sympathetic.

The second season, however, is more fully aware of the show’s other real-world parallels. The show’s pilot order was back in June of 2016, before the election. Now in 2019, Murdoch is not the only aging man in the news with a below-average moral center, several large adult sons and one daughter and three wives. Taking advantage of this, season two adds a full-blown presidential run to the myriad vague plans and schemes the idle super rich entertain to stroke their egos.

The addition of more timely plot lines became even more necessary after season one's failed interfamilial hostile takeover. Logan’s son Kendall, who might best be described as five narcissistic weasels in a skin suit, managed to derail his own coup with a drugged-out car crash everyone will recognize as indirectly inspired by the Chappaquiddick incident. Having run back to daddy to escape the consequences of his actions, Kendall is now a broken shell, like so many leavings from a hard-boiled egg fest. Logan can really only make sure his son’s pieces stay together in a little heap.

The show’s pilot order was back in June of 2016, before the election. Now in 2019, Murdoch is not the only aging man in the news with a below-average moral center, several large adult sons and one daughter and three wives.

Kendall’s spectacular flameout has changed the calculations of the other siblings. Logan is no longer about to hand over the reins anytime soon, which means the open jockeying for power has been replaced by a veneer of obsequiousness. Connor, the would-be Silicon Valley disruptor, has decided to wander off and do his own thing by running for the presidency. Blessedly his is not a “blatant racist” platform, as that would be a little too close to the real world for even HBO’s comfort. Instead his flat tax campaign plank brings to mind the utterly clueless Steve Forbes campaign of the 1990s.

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Unfortunately, that was then, when the world was sane. “Succession” is far too aware that this is now, and with ATN and a foreign country or two on one’s side, one doesn’t need to run on much of anything to win the presidency, as long as people recognize your last name.

This leaves family playboy Roman, the fast-talking youngest, and token family liberal Shiv, to make the case for why they should be heir apparent. There’s also in-law Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun) and Shiv’s now-husband Tom Wamsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), who hold the dubious distinctions of not actually being Roy’s blood, and always working to make up for it. They are especially delicious this season, especially as the Roy daughter starts finding her inner Ivanka to Tom’s Jared, and living up to her family nickname.

“Succession” wasn’t a hit right out of the gate last year, instead slowly picking up steam via word of mouth and critical adoration. Season two is already burning much hotter, pushing the Roy family together as much as possible so viewers can bask in vicious back-and-forth of an excellent ensemble cast, all vying for the seat of power. May they all fly higher — and fall faster.