Monday 20 August 2018

'King Lear' for the modern media age

The latest US watercooler drama offers a portrait of the super-rich with its tale of a dysfunctional family at war, writes Jane Mulkerrins

Seat of power: Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox star in family saga Succession
Seat of power: Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox star in family saga Succession

Jane Mulkerrins

An ageing and irascible tycoon whose billion-dollar New York business empire employs his privileged offspring (the products of multiple marriages): in certain obvious aspects, Succession, American cable network HBO's newest satirical drama, feels ripped directly from real life.

But while such comparisons are probably inevitable, Succession's creator, Jesse Armstrong, is adamant that his fictitious media mogul patriarch, Logan Roy, is not Rupert Murdoch, nor even Donald Trump.

"This is not a Murdoch or a Trump roman à clef by the back door," he insists. "But I think there's a growing vein of interest and scepticism in what extreme wealth and power means, and how it's acquired."

Plus, there are many other families to borrow inspiration from, too. Armstrong names the Redstone family, which owns CBS, the Roberts family, which controls NBC, and the Mercers who run far-right news site Breitbart.

"Like them, the Roys are a family with a lot of power. The stuff that they fall out over, over breakfast, could affect what everyone else is reading over breakfast the next day, or watching on TV."

As Succession opens, the King Lear of the piece - self-made tycoon Logan - finds himself facing retirement, with a brood of four entitled and insecure offspring all apparently ill-equipped to inherit his mantle.

"It's a modern morality tale. It's about the super-wealthy and where it's all going so horribly wrong," says Brian Cox, who plays Logan.

"We get examples of that daily, especially with the clown running this [US] administration. They're governing the country as if it was a company - and that, of course, is why people voted for him, but the last person you want to run a country is a businessman, who will hunt with the hares and run with the hounds to get what he's after. You do not want a businessman - you want a visionary."

The show's pilot is directed by executive producer Adam McKay, who also directed the Oscar-winning film about the 2008 financial crisis, The Big Short, and who is "interested in the pathology of corporations, and of corporate America", portraying a world in which both the business deals and the language are brutal and dirty - in every sense of the word.

"This is a tough world, full of mostly men, who behave in that Trump-like way," says Armstrong. "It's that idea that the only way you really know you've won is if the other person is crying."

For Armstrong, who has written for some of the most subversive television comedies of recent years, including Peep Show and Armando Iannucci's The Thick of It, Succession is his first foray into drama, but it retains his trademark savage humour too, with a script full of insults that would make Malcolm Tucker proud.

And this is no one-note takedown of the heady world of helicopter fleets and Hamptons mansions. While it's not always easy to feel sympathy for these characters, Armstrong would also like us to consider their plight. "I do think it's really tough being super-rich, really hard-working and wanting to get some sort of immortality by passing on the organisation to your kids," he says.

"And how does it feel to be those kids?" he continues. "Their name is the most interesting thing about them, and they're never going to escape it."

Logan's eldest son, Connor, is "damaged goods", according to the actor who plays him, Alan Ruck.

"He's got big political ambitions, which are completely out of his league, but he doesn't see it. He's a trust-fund baby, he's had this great big wall of money around him, and he's gone 50-plus years not ever really having to work, or deal with anybody he didn't want to deal with."

That leaves Kendall, his second son, played by Jeremy Strong, as the heir apparent - capable but encumbered by addiction and desperate for his father's approval.

In preparing for the role, Strong read "every book about the Murdochs ever written", he says, along with tomes on billionaire US industrialists the Koch brothers and others. "In Michael Wolff's book, The Man Who Owns the News, there was an interview with Lachlan [Rupert Murdoch's eldest son, now 46] about how it's not easy to wake up in the morning and be him," he recalls.

"While Logan has built this empire and amassed all this power, his children have not been raised or nurtured in a way that instils any power in them. They have no personal power, and they're grasping for it."

The only daughter, Siobhan - known as Shiv and played by Sarah Snook - is more like her father than her brothers, but her gender counts against her. "Logan thinks she's the most able and self-possessed one of them all," says Armstrong. "But he also has quite an unreconstructed attitude, so his daughter is probably not going to be the one who takes over."

The Roy brood is rounded out by Kieran Culkin (left, brother of Macaulay), who plays the youngest son, Roman - a foul-mouthed womaniser and the embodiment of entitlement, who brazenly offers a lowly staff member's son $1m if he hits a home run during a family baseball game. "Roman's spent his whole life without having to suffer the consequences of anything. He's never had to pay for anything he's had to do. He just says and does whatever the hell he wants," says the actor.

After achieving ratings success in the US, the juicily dramatic Succession has already been commissioned for a second season. "With a bit of luck," quips Ruck, "our show might last longer than Trump."

Succession airs Thursdays at 9pm on Sky Atlantic. Episodes are also available On Demand and on streaming service NOW TV.

Irish Independent

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