This review contains minor spoilers for “Succession.”
It’s okay, I know you haven’t watched “Succession,” which is currently in its second season on HBO.
Maybe your TV buff roommate is begging you to check it out, or maybe you heard about it on Twitter, where the show has a devoted hive of New York media-obsessed fans, or maybe if you live in New York the splattering of ads on the transit system caught your eye. But for most people the only taste of “Succession” they will get is from the humorless YouTube trailers that makes it look like a super serious drama about white business titans.
I’m here to tell you that halfway through season 2 of “Succession,” I can unequivocally say there is no show like it on television.
It is not easily siloed into a genre: guttural verbal humiliation, inside jokes about the media, and the confused sex life of a deviant scion all make appearances around the breakfast table at the Roy family’s palatial residence.
“Succession,” as its name suggests, centers around who will take over the media conglomerate of Waystar-Royco from self-made mogul Logan Roy. His entitled children—recovering addict and heir apparent Kendall, potty-mouthed-sheep-in-wolves-clothing Roman, and capable but deceptively vulnerable political consultant Shiv—compete for Logan’s attention and “love” as he pits them against each other to stay on top.
There is one obvious avatar in the large cast of characters for a possible Wesleyan student viewer to latch on to: Greg “the egg” Hirsch. A misfit and cousin to the direct Roy family, cousin Greg starts the series as a costumed theme park entertainer who then gets a management job in the parks division of Waystar-Royco. His ascent up the corporate ranks is the definition of falling upwards. Although he is consistently underestimated, he uses this to his advantage when he’s forced to enter the file room or “death pit” to destroy documents that could be dangerous to Waystar-Royco, but makes a few copies of key documents and leverages them for his own benefit.
And don’t forget about Tom Wambgams, the oafish fiancé of ruthless Roy daughter Shiv. Depending on the situation, Tom’s rapid switches from meek partner of Shiv to bully of our beloved Greg sometimes makes him feel like two different characters. His character whiplash is the result of a man reacting to the very different power dynamics between him and fierce Shiv and the bumbling Greg. Tom’s cowardice and arrogance are two faces of a man precisely attuned to the sound of power.
With quick cuts matching the speed of the dialogue and camera movement that follows the Roy family down the halls of power, “Succession” feels like a glimpse into another world—a world many Wesleyan students seek to enter. It’s up to date with newsy allusions to our current political climate but also features grand parallels to Shakepeare’s “King Lear.” The show, which has been called “the next Game of Thrones,” finds hilarity in the grotesqueness of the one percent. It is a show about family bonds and the power of our elite that remarkably never glorifies the wheeling and dealing at the top, but shows fully believable people striving to climb the ladder of power.
And the climb is certainly a steep one. In the third episode of season 2, patriarch Logan Roy, takes his family and executive team to Hungary for a corporate retreat. (According to Waystar-Royco general counsel Gerri, this is because there are fewer laws to worry about there.) When Logan discovers someone in his inner circle talked to a reporter for a biography, he unleashes a game of “boar on the floor.” Members of the dinner party suspected of traitorous behavior are shouted down by Logan until they crawl around like piggies and fight for two sausages to prove their innocence.
Any other show would lose its bearings in a moment like this that forcefully departs from acceptable behavior and normality. However, on “Succession,” when money and power are in play, anything can become funny and nothing is unrealistic.
It helps that all one has to point to is the improbable ascent of Trump and his family to the White House to prove that the ludicrous can become real. A recent piece in The Atlantic actually titled in the print edition “Succession” lays out the currying of favor and backstabbing among Trump’s children. The Murdochs of Fox News, the Trumps, the Kennedys, and the Redstones of CBS/VIACOM all serve as real world inspiration for the show.
“Succession” exists in a world similar to ours, except there is no Trump and Roy-owned ATN serves as a Fox News counterpart. When a main character on Succession talks about running for the presidency the show knows it’s not just a joke. “Succession” is a post-Trump show that doesn’t struggle with how to depict the new normal. In this age of unprecedented wealth creation by families at the top, “Succession” is a bizarre and cruel peek behind the curtain at the shenanigans that touch us, the little guys.
“Succession” is not a show for the lighthearted nor the casual viewer. If I have one criticism of the show, it’s the focus that it expects of its audience. Business terms—poison pill defense, leveraged buyout, hostile takeover—are thrown around casually, and characters talk faster than the money piling up in their fictional bank accounts. However, this density becomes a strength on second or even third watches, when covert glances around family dinners and savage barbs reveal themselves to have deeper meanings. Like a good novel, “Succession” can be interpreted more than one way and each character has a fully fleshed out story.
Greg’s surprise at the opulence in which the Roys live and how they conduct their business is one of the show’s ways of piercing the privileged bubble of the Roys that the audience also gets used to. And Greg’s gradual surrender as his outside voice assimilates into the poisonous Roy family is very prescient to the choice many graduates face in the world waiting outside college.
If an internship at Google or a job in corporate America awaits you after college, “Succession” will give you second thoughts.
Stuart Woodhams can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @williamnewsboy.