HBO’s depressing corporate-family drama “Succession” (premiering Sunday) reaffirms one thing, at least: This is a network that lives to tell intense stories about rich people’s problems more than anyone else’s. Even on imaginary medieval continents or within amusement acres overrun by revolutionary robots, HBO, with a few memorable exceptions, seems most concerned with the feelings and failures of the wealthy. Moral lapses are laid bare, yet the message remains clear: The rich are just more interesting than the rest of us.
“Succession,” which is underwhelming in both execution and intent, arrives at a time when the make-believe of TV has been more effective at eliminating the working middle class than any domestic or economic policy could be. We turn on a show and simply accept that luxury is affordable.
“Succession,” however, is about a whole other kind of rich. Created by writer Jesse Armstrong, the show centers on the temperamental, hypercontrolling Logan Roy (Brian Cox), who spent decades building his company, Waystar Royco, into a family-controlled, international media and entertainment conglomerate, which includes a right-leaning news network that drives a conservative agenda.
(You say: Oh, like Rupert Murdoch. To which HBO, with a straight face, officially replies: Who? Never heard of him.)
After letting his most ambitious yet widely disparaged son, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), believe that a father-son transfer of power is imminent, Logan has changed his mind. At his 80th birthday party, he asks his heirs to sign documents giving his third wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass), more power on the company’s board of directors than that of Kendall or the other three Roy siblings: Connor (Alan Ruck), a disengaged New Ager; Roman (Kieran Culkin), an unaccomplished jackwagon; and Siobhan (Sarah Snook), a political operative who works for candidates on the left, mostly to irritate her father and make good on her family nickname — Shiv.
On cue, Logan is felled by a strokelike event that puts him the hospital and sends the company stock into a tailspin, leaving the siblings jockeying for position. Although Armstrong is known for his satire work (including writing episodes of “In the Loop,” a British proving ground for the gang that went on to make “Veep”), it turns out that “Succession” is dreadfully serious business. Its occasional attempts at wryness result in a choking dryness, with the only levity coming from the arrival of a green and gullible cousin, Greg (Nicholas Braun), who attempts to ingratiate his way into this inner circle of snakes. The overall tone of cruelty is difficult to overcome.
In the same breath, I must admit that curiosity about the show’s duplicitous twists and turns lured me along through the seven (out of 10) episodes made available to critics. It’s not that hard; why, it almost feels like watching a white, gloomier version of “Empire” (Fox’s drama about a hip-hop record label torn asunder by family foolishness), minus that show’s emotional slapstick and conspicuous consumption. Although “Succession” is very much about people who have helicopters waiting and family compounds to visit, its attentive details and class signifiers are missing that vicarious, ur-“Dynasty” pleasure — and surely that’s on purpose. The message here is that being this rich is not about things, not at temperatures this frigid.
“This is a family business,” observes one character, a hedge-fund slimeball who winds up on the Waystar Royco board during the fray. “But the family is [messed up], and it’s hurting the stock.”
It’s also hurting the show. Although the Roys are far from the first ethically bankrupt brood to darken prestige cable TV with their reprehensible ways, they never get a chance to grow on us or fully develop as characters, despite the efforts of a strong ensemble cast. The urge is to get as far away from them as fast as possible. If this is what life is like at the tippy top of the 1 percent, they can keep it.
Succession (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.