HBO’s ‘Succession’ Journeys Into Inner Circle of the Rich and Devious

The one percent may have all the spoils, but their family issues can be dark and demented. You can have all the money in the world and still find yourself alone and miserable. If such notions are unknown to you dear reader, then HBO’s new drama “Succession” will be quite a revelation. But for most of us this is old territory with a new sheen. Well-written, well-acted, it is the latest TV opus to journey into the interior lives of the powerful. It focuses on a New York family running a major corporation, and their aging patriarch, who decides at the last minute that he wants to stick around and run the show a little longer. But his kids are not too keen on the decision, and as you can imagine, the back-stabbing soon begins.

The Roy family of the show’s plot control a media and entertainment conglomerate which has granted them power and perks. Rising high is Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), who is under the impression that he will soon inherit the business from his highly respected and feared father, Logan (Brian Cox). Kendall is currently attempting to negotiate the takeover of a competitor as the family gathers to celebrate Logan’s birthday. It is a serene, ritualistic affair as everyone gathers around the old man, rehearsing the right things to say. The Roy siblings include Roman (Kieran Culkin), a debauched little rebel who got out of the company because he simply didn’t like all the work, Shiv (Sarah Snook), who does political work but remains firmly connected to the family business, and Connor (Alan Ruck), who has settled into a rural existence and dreams of one day making a profit off of the need for water resources. Into the picture comes a new arrival, a nephew named Greg (Nicholas Braun), the son of Logan’s estranged brother. Greg recently lost his job at a family-owned theme park and needs help to have some sort of functioning life. But Logan drops a bombshell when he announces that he has decided to remain head of the corporation, dashing Kendall’s hopes and setting in motion schemes to maneuver a coup.

If you enjoy shows like “Billions” or “Trust,” then “Succession” is old wine poured from a new flask. The settings and themes will be instantly familiar. The greedy family members, the pompous decorum, the flaunting of having limitless resources, it’s all here. What is missing from “Succession,” at least in its pilot episode, is a little more juice and gossip. By now it is common knowledge that the corporate world is a jungle. What we want is an engaging narrative that dives into the very psychology and impulses great power fuels. This is what made Donald Sutherland’s J.Paul Getty in “Trust” so toxic and fascinating. Yet this is not to say “Succession” lacks merit. The writing has a documentary feel in the scenes involving corporate negotiations, especially with Kendall speaking in hip-hop –influenced lingo, bantering like a gangster about cutting off opponent’s nether regions. There is a fantastic sense here of the violent formality of this world, as a competitor will shake a hand, give a proper, serious stare yet utter something like, “you’ve let me into the chicken coop and now I will devour you one by one.”

The pilot is essentially a family reunion. The entire episode feels like we’re spending a day with personas living in a bubble of material advantage. If the general plot can feel uninvolving, what shines are individual moments. The Roys play a family baseball game and Roman cruelly offers the son of the grounds keeper a million dollars if he can make a home run. When the kid fails Roman taunts him like a demented school boy, tearing the check in front of his eyes. Logan brutally dismisses the gifts he’s offered by guests, since such trinkets are beyond his interest at this point. Shiv’s husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), buys him an expensive watch and offers it with an idiotic, rehearsed joke. These are small scenes that have a deliciously acidic insight into the enclosed world of some elites. The writing can get brutally honest about human folly. Kendall sneaks away from the baseball game to leak damaging information to the press, just to stop his own father from retaining control of the company. The real fun will begin after the pilot, as it ends with Logan suddenly falling ill during a helicopter ride. Now the puppies will engage in a cage match over Logan’s empire.

Recommending “Succession” depends on various factors. If you are a devoted connoisseur of this kind of drama, where the elite scheme and betray their own kin for riches, then it’s a good variation with less of a scandalous, melodramatic style. Even the great Israeli actress Hiam Abbass brings more of a subdued, serious angle to the role of the matriarch, Marcia. If you’ve already had your fill of watching men in high business offices threatening to metaphorically disembowel their opponents, then you can afford to skip it. It has good performances and some memorable scenes, but it feels like a get together we have attended many times before.

Succession” season one premieres June 3 at 10 p.m. ET and airs Sundays on HBO.