Damien Love’s TV highlights plus seven-day programme guide
Succession Thursday, 9pm Sky Atlantic
TEN years ago, a film script by Jesse Armstrong, the co-creator of Peep Show, started to garner a lot of attention in Hollywood. This wasn’t simply because everyone who read it thought it was very good, but also because they all agreed on another point: it would never get made, because it was about one of the world’s most powerful media tycoons:
More specifically, it was about the whole Murdoch family. Set on a single day, it saw the extended brood confronting the question of what would happen when the mogul died, or otherwise relinquished control of his empire, with a host of internecine power struggles erupting into the open. The reasons the script was never filmed are clear enough – most of them are lawyers – but, a decade on, Armstrong might be glad it never got the green light. Because it seems that, much like Rupert Murdoch himself, his script’s central idea still hasn’t quite gone away. But in the intervening years, it has seeded, mutated and bloomed into something more awkward, less tied down, and potentially more interesting.
It’s not difficult to trace the roots of Succession,
Armstrong’s new series, back to the old Murdoch idea. Produced by HBO in the US, it focuses on the fictional Logan Roy (a gift for Brian Cox, given a rare chance in a US production to air his Scottish accent), another ageing media magnate who started life outside America, and who built his company, Waystar Royco, into a globe-straddling conglomerate that includes right-leaning newspapers and cable-news networks, as well as film and TV studios.
As his 80th birthday dawns, the question of to whom Logan should hand the reins hangs heavy over his variously screwed-up family. The most obvious candidates include his two sons from his second marriage, both already jockeying for power at Waystar: Kendall (Jeremy Strong), a recovering drug addict who’s not quite the business alpha-monster he pretends; and Roman (a sly Kieran Culkin), a lazy, pampered playboy.
Meanwhile, their sister, Siobhan (Sarak Snook), known to all by her pointed nickname “Shiv”, is going her own way, working as a political consultant – but her fiancé, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), is a Waystar executive, and courting Logan’s favour as much as he is his daughter. Then again, there’s Logan’s son from his first marriage, Connor (Alan Ruck), a family outsider who has set up as a Zen-like rancher; and Logan’s third and current wife, Marcia (the great Hiam Abass), whose motives remain mysterious.
Things are complicated, and, as the show begins, grow more so. Instead of announcing he’s stepping down as anticipated, Logan abruptly declares he intends to continue as Waystar’s CEO. Then, as a real powerplay dogfight begins, yet further complications arise, as age takes its toll, and Logan’s fitness to stay in power comes into question.
It’s the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy, but Succession balances between drama and comedy: King Lear goes Arrested Development. It doesn’t always get the tone right, but it’s the way it shakily tips one way then the other that gives it its uneasy energy. Armstrong was one of the core writers on The Thick Of It, and it shows, not just in the exploding expletives that punctuate dialogue, or the scattering, jittering handheld camerawork, but in Succession’s whole attitude. It shares the slick, super-rich Manhattan settings of a show like Billions, but not the guilty pleasure gaze. Everything has a nastier, darker, chillier, more claustrophobic edge, made more piquant by occasional hints of grudging sympathy for these hideous characters. It’s a foxy piece of business.
Scottish artist Barbara Rae