HBO's 'Succession' Focuses On Corrosive Weight Of Inherited Wealth

Jun 1, 2018
Originally published on June 1, 2018 4:55 pm
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Well, if you can't stand to watch the game, HBO's new drama series "Succession" debuts on Sunday. It centers on an 80-something media mogul resisting retirement. Here's NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Brian Cox gives a note-perfect performance as Logan Roy, a titan of industry holding a glitzy 80th birthday party. His life reads like a middle-class-to-riches story, as told by his longtime friend and COO during a toast.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

PETER FRIEDMAN: (As Francis) Raised in Quebec by an uncle with a print shop and a few advertising billboards, Logan himself has made a decent way for himself these past 60 years - fifth-largest media conglomerate in the world. He's tough, but he's always true to his word.

DEGGANS: Well, not always because the party was also called to announce Logan's long-planned retirement so his son Kendall could step up as CEO and chairman. Except, as Logan tells Kendall, he's changed his mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUCCESSION")

BRIAN COX: (As Logan Roy) It's my company.

JEREMY STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Yeah, it is your company. And you know what? You're running it into the ground. The world is changing.

COX: (As Logan Roy) Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Everything changes. The studio was going to tank when I bought it. Everyone was going to stay home with videotape. But guess what? No, no one was going to watch network except you give a zing, and they do. You make your own reality.

DEGGANS: And so begins the saga of "Succession," which features a super dysfunctional, super wealthy family twisted even further by a fight over who should run their company. It's a darkly comic drama filled with backstabbing and missteps by Logan's inept and narcissistic children. Even when the mogul begs his daughter to help vote her stepmother on to the board of the family trust, her response is empathy-challenged.

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SARAH SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) I would love to help.

COX: (As Logan Roy) Then help.

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) But, I mean, why would I, when I'm giving away power? Why would I do that?

COX: (As Logan Roy) So Kelly (ph)...

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) Who's Kelly (ph)?

COX: (As Logan Roy) Kelly (ph) worked up some figures, and she's seen that...

SNOOK: (As Siobhan Roy) Dad.

DEGGANS: Turns out Logan has had a brain hemorrhage. And Logan's kids, raised in wealth, have little idea how to actually run the company they want to control. It's a vision of the corrupting power of inherited family wealth that's popped up in several big-ticket TV dramas in recent weeks. Considered together, they form a powerful commentary on the subject at a time when families named Redstone, Murdoch and Trump wield huge influence in American business and politics.

In Showtime's miniseries "Patrick Melrose," for instance, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the title character. He's an unfortunate son in an upper-class family molested by his father and neglected by his mother. And after his father has died and his mother is dying, when he has a wife and kids of his own, Melrose discovers his mom has other plans for the family's money.

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BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) I've been disinherited.

ANNA MADELEY: (As Mary Melrose) What?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) She's signing the house over to this joke charity. Nothing to us, nothing to our children.

MADELEY: (As Mary Melrose) Patrick, that's awful.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) Oh, and she wants me to check for loopholes, make sure the whole thing runs smoothly. It's not enough to be disinherited. She wants me to chip in with the paperwork. She wants to help people - anyone, really, just as long as they're not related to us.

DEGGANS: Based on a book series by Edward St Aubyn, the miniseries paints a devastating portrait of a decadent aristocracy filled with pathologically self-obsessed and oblivious people. TV has often been obsessed with wealthy families through series like "Dynasty," "Empire" and "Gossip Girl." But those stories of dysfunctional wealth have often been cloaked in soapy storylines and melodrama. These recent series are more serious and substantive.

But rather than detail exploits of the super wealthy, the prestige dramas feel more like cautionary tales exposing how wealth and power can destroy empathy and family unity. Consider FX's "Trust," which stars Donald Sutherland as J. Paul Getty, an oil tycoon so callous he would gather his four mistresses for breakfast and pit them against each other, quoting Shakespeare.

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DONALD SUTHERLAND: (As J. Paul Getty) Overrated, Shakespeare, though (laughter) his will amused me. He left his wife his second-best bed. To whom should I leave my second-best bed?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Before you quote too much "Lear," you might remember how that particular family drama ended - murder, poisoning, suicide and insanity.

DEGGANS: So when his grandson is kidnapped in Italy, Getty has a predictable response at a press conference.

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SUTHERLAND: (As J. Paul Getty) I have 14 other grandchildren who would be put at risk if I were to negotiate with kidnappers. I will not be paying a single solitary cent.

DEGGANS: Eventually his grandson is returned, but not until after Getty originally insisted his layabout son could only have the $5 million ransom as a loan with interest and the kidnappers sent the grandson's severed ear to the family. At a time when income inequality is an increasing concern, these shows offer something of a consolation for those outside of the 1 percent, presenting characters debilitated by their money rather than empowered by it. I'm Eric Deggans.

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