‘Team work makes the dream work’ is not the kind of thing anyone would say on Succession without either a thick layer of irony or outright mocking by the next person to draw breath. But going by the first episode of its final season it’s a motto the Roy siblings have come to embrace – at least for now.
If the last three seasons have taught us anything, it’s that scheming, double-dealing and betrayal have been pummelled into their entitled multi-millionaire bones by their Satanic father, Logan (Brian Cox). Getting one over him is the only thing that can unite his offspring; it’s not hard to believe that the chance to win back his approval could once again tear them apart.
Season three ended with Logan getting pretty much everything he wanted – success in business while humiliating his children – which probably explains why season four opens with him looking about as sour as a human being can get. It’s his birthday party (bringing the show back to where it began in season one), providing him with plenty of opportunities to look bored while people are singing happy birthday to him.
Across the country, his three offspring – Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) – are putting together the funding for their new bespoke news service, The Hundred. Selling ‘high quality info snacks’, it’s ‘like clickbait, but for smart people’.
Then via a somewhat muddled phone call from Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) to soon-to-be ex-wife Shiv, word gets out that Roy’s big scheme might have a weakness when it comes to purchasing rival media organisation Peirce. The Hundred is now ‘exciting, but it’s kinda bullshit’; messing with dear old dad is the new game in town.
HBO has built its brand on a certain kind of series where a lot of powerful people who don’t really get along play high stakes power games. Succession isn’t exactly The Sopranos played for laughs (in part because The Sopranos could be pretty funny when it wanted to be), but throw in a bit of half hour comedy Veep’s DNA and you’re starting to get close.
But where those shows looked backwards (a very long way back in the case of the biggest power play series of all, Game of Thrones) to older forms of power, Succession hits just the right tone for today by setting its bile and backstabbing in a media empire. And while much of this episode is about wheeling and dealing using near-inconceivable amounts of money – so much so that Roman has to spell out just how big a number a billion really is – the bubbling undercurrent of a tightly fought election where Logan’s toxic values could swing things is always there.
Much of the fun here comes from seeing the siblings manage to work together as a (still fairly friction-filled) team and swing into action to screw their father over. While they’re setting aside their bickering on the west coast, much of the comedy is happening in New York at Logan’s party as the mood slowly sours – not that it was ever all that sprightly with Tom and Greg (Nicholas Braun) – AKA the self-dubbed ‘Disgusting Brothers’ – in attendance.
Greg has brought a random date to his father’s birthday party (‘I’m a cousin. I get a plus one. I’m like an honourary kid’), who ends up trying to get a selfie with Logan. Amazingly, things get worse from there.
Much like Veep, and before that UK political sitcom The Thick of It (both of which Succession creator Jesse Armstrong worked on), Succession excels when it comes to razor-sharp one-liners spat out by unpleasant people. Where Succession moves beyond those series – which were both still sitcoms at the core of their dark hearts – is in displaying the human side of those venal characters.
Towards the end of the first episode, Tom and Shiv find themselves together in the apartment they once shared. He still wants to make a connection, even if it’s just to get some things off his chest; she just can’t be bothered, her recent triumph seemingly having given her enough energy to reach escape velocity.
(She also, as part of the wheeling and dealing to purchase Pierce, showed her enthusiasm for the deal by committing to a divorce; there’s a running theme this episode of people selling out their personal lives for public gain).
It’s a brief but deeply sad moment between them. Succession’s monsters are never more pitiful than when they show the withered hearts they’ve been working so hard and so successfully to kill.
New episodes of Succession stream each Monday on BINGE.