There’s a wonderful scene in the Channel 4 series Peep Show where Jeremy (Robert Webb), the moronic slacker who makes up one-half of the show’s odd couple, goes to a meeting at a Scientology-like “New Wellness Centre” with the intention of mocking its members. Jeremy walks into the meeting feeling superior (“I’m gonna freak the fuck out of this sheep. He’ll probably walk out worshiping me”), but it’s quickly apparent that he’s exactly the kind of lost soul that cults like Scientology target. The interviewer asks about childhood; when Jeremy mentions his dad leaving when he was 10, he drills down: “What do you think the 10-year-old Jeremy would say to his dad if he’d had the courage?” Jeremy’s eyes well up. “To just, don’t go. Don’t go.” His lips quiver. He unsuccessfully tries to stifle a sob. As is the case with so many Peep Show scenes, the punchline goes unspoken, a piece of Jeremy’s inner dialogue as his face contorts in weepy anguish: “This is funny. This is definitely pretty funny.”
The characters in Succession, the latest series from Peep Show co-creator Jesse Armstrong, display a similar mix of tough as nails, above-it-all cynicism and deep-seated emotional fragility. It’s a show about people who imagine they’re somehow beyond sentimentality despite constant evidence to the contrary. “I don’t need love,” Connor Roy (Alan Ruck) matter-of-factly tells his siblings, having completely internalized the not-so-secret disappointment of his media mogul father Logan (Brian Cox). It’s funny because, of all the grown Roy children—none are true adults, they’re all just grown children—Connor’s the most desperate for love and approval, to the point that he blows a massive chunk of his inheritance on a doomed presidential bid.
Unlike Peep Show, which is pure comedy, Succession is a drama liberally spiced with very funny moments, and a fairly dark one at that. The Waystar RoyCo empire (obviously modeled after Fox) is a snake pit of scandals and cover-ups, including the accidental death of a wedding caterer and a series of sexual assaults and mysterious deaths on the company’s cruise line. These developments are more salacious than the relatively boring Fox News scandal that’s currently playing out, yet the company’s attitude regarding its perilous position is frighteningly close to Waystar RoyCo’s: lie, deny, whitewash, and pay whatever slap on the wrist fine they receive as punishment. Consequences are for poor people.
The Roys are Worthington’s Law personified, their every action bolstered by the level of self-superiority only money can buy. Logan may be self-made, but his children have gotten the silver spoon treatment since infancy. They are, in Logan’s words, “not serious people.” The oldest is Connor, whose mother was sent to a mental institution when he was a child and whose status is therefore slightly lower than his half-siblings; then Kendall (Jeremy Strong), a coke-addict fail-son turned company defector; Siobhan (Sarah Snook), whose brutal incisiveness earns her the nickname Shiv; and Roman (Kieran Culkin), the favorite son, whom Logan affectionately nicknames Romulus. The continued allusion to the fratricidal founder of Rome says something about how the Roy family views itself: rulers of an empire, greasing the wheels of history with the blood of anyone foolish enough to stand in their way.
In reality, the Roy children more closely resemble the leads of Peep Show, if not in their social status then at least in their shared tendency toward bitter squabbling, backstabbing, and malignant narcissism (all taught and encouraged by their father). Peep Show was all about the chasm between what people think and say. Succession is about characters who steadfastly refuse to differentiate between the two; they say exactly what they’re thinking, no matter the cost or who gets hurt. It’s a very British approach to comedy writing, not dissimilar from Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It (which Armstrong wrote for) and its lesser American cousin Veep, that emphasizes dry delivery and inventive profanity. Similar to Iannucci’s political satires, Succession’s caustic wit is always a bit toxic—the ultimate expression of the ruling class’ arrogance and festering contempt for those they consider beneath them.
If the blitheness with which the Roy family wields its power is a key source of its comedy, Succession locates its human drama in the emotionally fraught life events that one can’t buy their way out of, like the failure of a relationship or the death of a loved one. The latter comes into play during the series’ most recent episode “Connor’s Wedding,” in which the titular ceremony is interrupted by the news that Logan Roy has gone into cardiac arrest on an international flight. Suddenly the Roy scions, who have spent seasons fighting with and badmouthing their father, who all share a Logan-sized hole in their hearts, are faced with his imminent departure, and their response isn’t too far from Jeremy’s “Don’t go.”
The stages of grief play out over a long phone call with Shiv’s estranged husband Tom (Matthew Macfayden): Roman’s denial whips up Shiv’s anger; Kendall’s bargaining eventually gives way to depression; and when the plane lands, all three settle into some personalized version of acceptance. Connor gets married. Shiv makes a statement to the press. Roman boards the plane to see the body. Kendall stands off to the side of the tarmac. They’re all sad. This is funny. This is definitely pretty funny.