×

TV Review: ‘Succession’ Season 2

With Season 2, "Succession" yields a meaningful understanding of what power can do and the privileges it strips away.

The first season of “Succession” felt, in ways good and bad, indebted to Sartre’s existentialist play “No Exit.” The characters — centrally, a trio of siblings scrapping for their corner of a family media empire, with various lackeys and hangers-on in their orbit — were miserable creatures, and unwilling to get out of one another’s way. The locations changed, but the condition of being stuck in a war that could not be won, and that could only be waged through vicious bickering, wore on.

What a pleasant surprise, then, that the second season has found a way forward — and has become vastly more interesting in the process. The world of the Roy family has opened up, yielding a meaningful understanding not merely of the lust for power but of what that power can do, and what privileges it strips away.

The arc of the first five episodes concerns the tending and maintenance of the family’s media holdings, with an internet-content company staffed by malcontents growing increasingly difficult to manage and a legacy outlet alluring as a potential acquisition. The enterprise provides variation and dimension for the characters, even as it represents but another front in the endless campaign the Roys have undertaken to dominate the world. Dutiful semi-reformed addict Kendall (Jeremy Strong), emerging from a bender that left a body count in its wake, hews to his father’s commands with both an appropriately chastened demeanor and too much zeal by half. Roman (Kieran Culkin) comes to seem yet more feckless and sniveling as, tasked with demonstrating something other than wit, he can no longer keep up in conversation. And Shiv (Sarah Snook), the shrewdest of her siblings and the show’s standout character, surprises herself at her willingness to play power politics with her family’s conservative media holdings, entities that run up against all of her core tenets except the most powerful of all: self-interest.

These character traits aren’t new, but they now exist in a relationship with patriarch Logan (Brian Cox), a compelling monster of entitlement whom the show has wisely brought back to exceedingly rude health after sidelining him for much of Season 1. His mercurial nature makes the show about something more than the literal struggle of succession but complicates that too; it’s more fun seeing people compete for the love of an active madman than a lion in winter. And the children gain shading and potency by being placed in situations that extend beyond the family: The Roys’ pathologies, as a group and as individual sufferers, are all the more striking when placed in context, and in contrast. We gain, for instance, a greater understanding of what it is that the Roy-owned cable news network, run by a sharply drawn neocon gorgon (the great Jeannie Berlin), does — and why its presence in the show’s ecosystem is quite so galling to Roy critics. We meet a muckraking journalist (Jessica Hecht) whose persistence indicates both how famous all the family’s members are and how much of their privacy and trust has been sloughed away in return for grand wealth. And a confab with a family whose establishment liberalism runs as deep as the Roys’ vapid self-worship provides something more interesting still: The Roys brought low, forced to confront that which they lack and cannot replace with money. Some of these absences are moral, like rectitude and the ability to get along; more crucially, though, is the lack of respect from those outside the family.

It’s through the new, wider aperture that we more clearly see the truth of the Roys: Led by a renegade outsider patriarch and populated by famously broken ne’er-do-wells, this is a family whose greatest export is schadenfreude. Hell, for them, really is other people — both one another and the general public, which more than amply volleys back the Roys’ contempt. The earlier iteration of “Succession” promised access to the gilded corridors of the Roys’ world and overdelivered: The poisonous bonbons of family hatreds grew a bit glutting with time. Showing us exactly what’s at stake in the fight for domination and how eroded the family trust is by public hatred, has made “Succession” into a fascinating document about what it’s like to live in a world one does not control. We the proletariat cannot understand what it’s like to have the power of the Roys, but they cannot understand our side of things either, and fumble in attempting to show a human touch. These collisions between the Roys and the rest of us have given “Succession” — richer in humor and insight even as it’s scabrous as ever — vibrant, dimensional life.

“Succession.” HBO. August 11. 10 episodes (five screened for review.)

Executive producers: Jesse Armstrong, Adam McKay, Frank Rich, Kevin Messick, Will Ferrell, Jane Tranter, Mark Mylod, Tony Roche.

Cast: Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Hiam Abbass, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, Alan Ruck, Nicholas Braun, Matthew Macfadyen, Peter Friedman, Rob Yang, J. Smith Cameron, Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'Succession' Season 2

More TV

  • Screen writer Beau WillimonMary Queen of

    Beau Willimon Re-Elected as President of Writers Guild of America East

    Beau Willimon, the playwright and showrunner who launched Netflix’s “House of Cards,” has been re-elected without opposition to a two-year term as president of the Writers Guild of America East. Willimon also ran unopposed in 2017 to succeed Michael Winship. Kathy McGee was elected to the vice president slot over Phil Pilato. Secretary-Treasurer Bob Schneider ran [...]

  • Dickinson First Look Teaser

    TV News: Apple Drops New 'Dickinson' Trailer With Hailee Steinfeld (Watch)

    In today’s roundup, Apple’s “Dickinson” series released a new trailer and Netflix released the trailer for the fifth season of “Peaky Blinders.” DATES The “Cash Cab” revival will come to Bravo on Oct. 7. The game show takes place inside a New York cab, where unsuspecting passengers become contestants in a game of trivia for [...]

  • Jennie Snyder Urman, Katie Wech Team

    Jennie Snyder Urman, Katie Wech Team for Medical Drama in Development at CBS

    CBS is developing a medical drama that hails from writer Katie Wech, Variety has learned. Currently titled “Good Sam,” the series follows a talented yet stifled surgeon who embraces her leadership role after her renowned and pompous boss falls into a coma. When he awakens and wants to resume surgery, however, it falls to her to [...]

  • Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent,

    Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent, Dies at 88

    Jack Gilardi, a longtime ICM Partners agent who represented such stars as Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Jerry Lewis, Charlton Heston and Shirley MacLaine, died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88. Gilardi was known for his gentlemanly style, love of the Los Angeles Dodgers and his skill at representing top actors. He [...]

  • Will Gluck

    Will Gluck Sets TV Overall Deal at eOne (EXCLUSIVE)

    Will Gluck has signed a two-year overall television deal with Entertainment One (eOne), Variety has learned exclusively. Under the deal, Richard Schwartz will continue to oversee all television projects for Gluck’s Olive Bridge Entertainment, with eOne set to serve as studio on all projects under the partnership. “The choice for us was clear given their impeccable [...]

  • Katie Hockmeyer

    NBC Entertainment Names Katie Hockmeyer Exec VP of Late Night Programming

    Katie Hockmeyer has been named executive vice president of late night programming at NBC Entertainment She will report to NBC Entertainment co-chairmen George Cheeks and Paul Telegdy, where she will work on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” “Saturday Night Live” and newly launched late-night addition, “A Little Late with [...]

  • Nexstar Completes Tribune Acquisition, Sean Compton

    Nexstar Completes Tribune Acquisition, Sean Compton to Head Programming

    Nexstar Media Group has become the nation’s largest owner of TV stations after completing its $4.1 billion acquisition of Tribune Media. The deal creates a broadcasting colossus with more than 200 stations serving more than 100 markets, although a number of stations will be divested to keep Nexstar in compliance with FCC ownership limits. Nexstar, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content