Succession series 3 review: TV’s smartest, cruellest, funniest show runs out of storyline

Third time out, the novelty, such as it was, is starting to wear slightly

The problem is that, however zinging the script, extended time in the presence of these people has a corrosive effect. Photograph: HBO

The problem is that, however zinging the script, extended time in the presence of these people has a corrosive effect. Photograph: HBO

 

Succession (Sky Atlantic, 9pm)  is the smartest, cruellest, funniest show on television. But it’s difficult to warm to and it’s easy to see why it has failed to parlay critical acclaim and multiple Emmy wins into blockbuster ratings. And as series three arrives it is clear, too, that it is rapidly running out of storyline. 

 As before, this chronicling of familial infighting within a Murdoch-esque media empire is ribticklingly vicious. It is also icy and and bereft of characters with whom the viewer can connect. From sweary mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) to his horrorthon children Connor (Alan Ruck), Shiv (Sarah Snook) , Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin), and their sundry flunkies, everyone is a ghastly parody of a human being.

It doesn’t help that Succession really only has one trick, which is to follow the chaos as Logan’s hegemony over Waystar RoyCo falls into question

The problem is that, however zinging the script, extended time in the presence of these people has a corrosive effect. They’re simply horrible to be around. Show runner Jesse Armstrong has succeeded too well in creating a menagerie of despicable one percenters. 

It doesn’t help that Succession really only has one trick, which is to follow the chaos as Logan’s hegemony over Waystar RoyCo falls into question (the clue is in the title). That was the case in season one, when he fell critically ill and the vultures circled. And it was the storyline of season two, as brittle Kendall, Logan’s Shakespearean tragedy of a son, tried to usurp his father in the boardroom. 

With series three, it’s once again around the maypole. A #MeToo scandal buried for years by Waystar RoyCo has just been exposed by Kendall, who hopes to use it as leverage to unseat his father. It’s like Game of Thrones if Game of Thrones was nothing but Red Weddings. 

The Roys are all loathsome, though in different ways. Logan, a self-made tycoon from Scotland, is an archetype we in Ireland might recognise. The ageing corporate bully obsessed with complete control and willing to destroy the livelihoods and reputations of whoever stands in his way. All he has to offer are bare-knuckles and a bruiser’s instincts. 

Kendall, his prodigal heir, is the ruined princeling. Somewhere within may reside the spectral outline of a decent individual. Alas, a life of poisonous privilege, coupled with the withholding approval of his father, has resulted in a broken human being. 

Shiv meanwhile is a pretend liberal who’d stab you in the back – her name is no accident – while retweeting a progressive talking point (she and Irish Twitter would get on famously). Roman and Connor are just spoiled freaks .

Yet for all that, Succession can still sometimes knife you in the gut

The issue with Succession is that, unless you’re a fan of high-level board-room machinations, there is nothing here to grab hold of. In tone and rhythm, there are some parallels with the Julia Louis-Dreyfus White House spoof Veep (for which Armstrong wrote). The difference is that Veep illuminated the wider truth that our leaders as as clueless as the rest of us. And Armstrong’s earlier comedy Peep Show, was a loving picking apart of middle class foibles. Again, it was about something bigger than itself.

In Succession, by contrast, everyone and everything is a grotesque commentary on hyper-capitalism. And, third time out, the novelty, such as it was, is starting to wear slightly. Lines that might have zinged in season one now feel too self aware, such as when hapless Cousin Greg (Nicolas Braun) tells Kendall that he’s being followed on twitter by the Pope only to correct himself and explain he’s being followed by “A Pope”.

Yet for all that, Succession can still sometimes knife you in the gut. As they flee a media scrum in their SUV, Greg compares Kendall to OJ Simpson, “except if OJ didn’t kill anyone”.

“Who said I never killed anyone?” Kendall shoots back, grinning like a wolf. What Greg doesn’t know but the viewer does is that Kendall indeed has blood on his hands, having taken a fatal joyride with a waiter at the end of series one. In an episode that feels like Succession on autopilot, the line glitters malevolently. 

It’s a reminder that, at its best, the series isn’t comedy. It’s horror. The worry as season three begins is that, amid wall-to-wall five star reviews and endless Emmys, Succession has lost sight of that fact. And that it is in danger of becoming as shallow and self-involved as those in its satirical cross-hairs. 

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