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'Succession' review: A family drama that's hard to love

Jeremy Strong, left, and Brian Cox star in

Jeremy Strong, left, and Brian Cox star in "Succession." Photo Credit: HBO/Craig Blankenhorn

THE SERIES "Succession"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at  10 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) is the oldest son — from the second marriage — of Logan Roy (Brian Cox), Scottish-born octogenarian and chief of media conglomerate Waystar Royco. Ken thinks he's about to be named his dad's successor. Poor Ken doesn't know what's about to hit him: His younger brother Roman (Kieran Culkin) thinks he's a joke; sister Siobhan — aka "Shiv" (Sarah Snook) — pretty much agrees. Oldest brother — from first marriage — Connor (Alan Ruck) — has no opinion on the matter (but then he is a wet blanket). Meanwhile the power behind the throne is third wife Marcia (Hiam Abbass). She, too, will have something to say about this succession — as will Shiv's idiot boyfriend Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and distant cousin — also an idiot — Greg (Nicholas Braun).

This 10-episode series was created by Jesse Armstrong, who was a writer on Armando Iannucci's Brit TV classic, "The Thick of It."  

MY SAY "Succession" obviously has the Murdochs in mind here, with the aging patriarch, various heirs apparent and an empire built on a pile of old media assets, like TV networks, stations, studios and the cherished albeit declining "dead tree" property or two. But really, any family media dynasty will do — the Newhouses, Hearsts or maybe Redstones? Or specifically the Redstones? Shari Redstone's battle to succeed her father, Sumner, is absolutely implied. 

Outside the media realm, and into the fictional, there's a touch of the Corleones here too. Culkin's Roman is Sonny, Strong's Kendall is Fredo, Shiv is Michael and Connor is Al. Who remembers Al? Exactly. No one does, and it's roughly the same idea with Connor, who describes himself as an "observer. I'm a UN white helmet."

"Succession," meanwhile, draws direct inspiration from "King Lear." Which of his brood loves Daddy Dearest most? None of them, because love has nothing to do with it: "Succession's" bitter and not exactly original worldview is that power and wealth are corrupting influences, particularly on the easily corruptible. Hollow to the core, Logan also knows this but still enjoys pulling wings off flies, which — in the first episode — happen to be his children. This miserable old sod can't leave the stage. He's having too much fun.

And so to the question: Will you? "Succession" at first flirts with the idea of becoming a satire, with the handheld camera and a few sharp lines that draw blood. But it quickly decides that drop-kicking this family around for 10 episodes just for laughs would turn into an eternity. Instead, it turns into a study — of family dynamics, corporate governance and also complicated and ultimately frivolous issues related to power, and how those fray lives and companies. This study is leavened by some excellent performances and an impressionable scene (or two). In the opener, for example, Roman offers the son of the family estate's groundskeepers a $1 million check if he can hit a home run in a softball game. When he fails, Roman tears the check into four bits, and offers the kid a piece: "There's a quarter million," he says.

But the impressions that scenes like this ultimately leave are scarcely positive ones. Entitled and almost painfully dumb Ken is almost instantly dispensable. Roman is a reprobate, Connor spineless. That leaves Shiv — smart enough to know she's on a ship of fools, not wise enough to know how to disembark. 

There's also something bloodless and cold about "Succession" — hard to love, even harder to care about. Who will succeed the old man? Does it really matter? 

BOTTOM LINE At first engaging, then slowly, inexorably, "Succession" turns into work.

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