Logan Roy doesn’t have a clue.
This much is obvious after the first three episodes of the second season of HBO’s potboiler Succession.
What was intended to be a searing satire of a megalomaniac media mogul and his fratricidal progeny has been fatally undermined by the absence of any grasp of what a media mogul actually has to do for a living.
Setting aside, for a moment, the ethical issues raised by the job specification—the scope for exercising undue influence on the polity—it’s not just enough to be a megalomaniac. You have to run a business, make money, satisfy stockholders.
Instead, in Logan Roy, we have someone who is plainly incompetent and also incontinent (he pees on carpets in the night).
The second season began with Roy announcing that the mission of the family was to create the world’s No. 1 media conglomerate. At no point in the following three hours was there any discussion of what this might involve, any inkling that Roy was familiar with the media ecosphere, or its future. He was dimly aware that the future involved something he called “tech.”
Now it must be allowed that being in a room with Wall Street bankers, corporate lawyers and takeover strategists does not naturally produce riveting drama—unless it’s in the hands of someone with the gifts of Michael Lewis and produces stories as good as The Big Short and Liar’s Poker.
To work, satire needs an underpinning of the recognizable behavior, traits and attitudes of the cohort being satirized. But Succession has never come close to risking a few scenes of business acumen and tradecraft, something that would show the interplay of personalities and skills to make the Roy empire seem credible instead of risible. And the show seems creatively limited by having to stay within the boundaries of its leitmotif of dynastic and generational rivalry. It goes for King Lear and ends up with just the leer.
As written the Roys are a bunch of sociopaths who communicate through a vulgar frat house demotic of their own, laced with expletives, delivered in staccato bursts, incapable of using language to develop ideas.
There are two kinds of illiteracy on the screen here: one, apparently deliberate, is to reduce language to bullets of personal aggression in the belief that it becomes action, which it does not, and the other is illiteracy about the media business.
If you want to see a quintessential example of verbal and media industry literacy bound superbly together, revisit Network.
Paddy Chayefsky created a character, Diana Christensen, played by Faye Dunaway, who embodies all the furies of the future of television. Right then, back in 1976, she ruthlessly manipulates audiences by going for the lowest common denominator and predicts the coming of so-called reality shows. In the process the scruples of a legacy news division get chewed up in the pursuit of profit. Just for good measure, Chayefsky gives us the immortal, unhinged anchor Howard Beale, forerunner of the raving nutters of Fox News.
For another and more current example of a classy look inside network television there is The Newsroom, HBO’s 2012 production written by the peerless Aaron Sorkin, who, through the character of anchorman Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, made all too human the running conflict between journalism and ratings—a conflict convincingly played out here by Sam Waterston as president of the news division and Jane Fonda as the corporate boss.
There is no mistaking the family model on which Succession is based—the Murdochs. For the first time in my life I find myself feeling sympathetic toward Rupert and his heirs. There is no resemblance between old man Roy and old man Murdoch, nor between Roy’s contending sons Kendall and Roman and Lachlan and James Murdoch.
There are well recorded tensions between the Murdochs—Lachlan is seen as more of a chip off the old block of hard-nosed conservatism than James—but they seem like intellectual and moral giants when you suffer the banalities of Kendall and Roman Roy.
Jeremy Strong as Kendall permanently wears the gormless face of a born loser and is further burdened by a covered-up Chappaquiddick moment when he escaped from a car leaving the driver to drown. Kieran Culkin as Roman has to play a kind of screw-loose court jester, neither of them allowed to assemble characters of any depth.
In the second season these two dance to the jerking strings of the old man while the plot insinuates that Roy’s daughter Siobhan, known as Shiv, is really Logan’s favorite and—if she endures—the choice to take over the empire. Like Strong and Culkin, Sarah Snook as Shiv has not yet been given one line to suggest that she has any more business acumen than the rest of them, although she has the art to convey in body language what the writers don’t provide in words.
Brian Cox does what he can with Roy; he’s a formidable actor who can use a single glare or snarl in his deep Scottish brogue to disembowel an opponent. But he can’t be expected to solve the vacuity at the core of his character. Whatever you think about the corrosion of Rupert Murdoch’s influence on mass media in his dark way he is a true titan who built a world empire from a small provincial Australian newspaper.
There are scenes in Succession that get so crowded and yet are so underwritten that very good actors remain on the fringes of the frame with only reaction shots to deliver. This was the case in the third new episode where Jeannie Berlin, outstanding as the steely prosecutor in The Night Of, and cast here as the head of the news division, Cyd Peach, is a wallflower until allowed to utter the line “I will eat your sausage.”
That was part of an inexplicably irrelevant set-piece played out on location in a Hungarian hunting lodge, where Roy designed his own malignant version of a corporate retreat in order to serially humiliate his key people.
The intended symbolism of that location, slaughtering many boars for sport, descended instead to become a gathering of many bores. The drama was supposed to lie in the fact that someone had leaked a secret plan to take over another news network—a much larger and more scrupulous competitor. But this idea, potentially introducing an element of ethical discordance, was never allowed to come to life.
Consider this feeble fabrication against a real-life example of media dynasty drama: the final triumph of 65-year-old Shari Redstone over her 96-year-old father Sumner Redstone as she reunited the two arms of the family empire, Viacom and CBS, into one, a path that had long been thwarted by both her father and the self-aggrandizing CBS chief Les Moonves.
Shiv Roy could use a few scenes from Shari Redstone’s story if she wants to seem believable as a replacement for her old man.
Shari was faced by a father famous for his priapic habits and, in Moonves, an arrogant Mad Men vintage misogynist who was ultimately ejected over allegations of sexual misconduct. But she toughed it out against charges that she was under-qualified to run a large public company, let alone navigate the assembly of an even larger one. Moonves actually tried suing her to block the deal on the grounds that she was “an interfering presence.”
Now the boards of CBS and Viacom are majority female and the famously testosterone-heavy news division is headed by Susan Zirinsky—sweet revenge indeed and a sign that the #MeToo movement will render extinct monsters like Logan Roy.
Disney paid the Murdochs $71 billion for the 21st Century Fox part of the Murdoch business. Murdoch himself was worth around $19.3 billion, but according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index that will be cut to around $7.3 billion when the proceeds from the Disney deal are distributed to his six children.
There’s no way that any of Roy’s heirs, based on their poverty of talent, could expect the kind of payoff that Lachlan Murdoch now receives—$20 million a year as CEO of the re-shaped Fox businesses while James, no longer with Fox, is running his own media investment fund.
When the Roys opened up their Hamptons mansion for the summer there was a pervasive odor that was eventually tracked down to some dead raccoons in a chimney. But Succession and its cast suffers from another odor—of a rapidly decaying script that defeats the best efforts of all who mouth it.