Despite having been categorized as a drama, and having won a bunch of drama Emmys, “Succession” is a dark comedy at heart. Really, it’s a tragi-comedy, as it gives us a brutally sarcastic portrait of the American ruling class, the Haves whose sloppy monopoly games leave a massive chunk of Have Nots exploited, misinformed, and insolvent. There’s the much-noted overlap between HBO’s “Succession” and Shakespeare’s drama “King Lear,” but there’s also the overlap with “Veep,” the spiky comedy whose self-interested power mongers behave with the same kind of absurd megalomania.
Watching the thrilling first seven episodes of the pandemic-postponed third season (premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., it will feature nine in all), I found myself laughing more than ever at creator Jesse Armstrong’s super-wealthy drama queens and opportunists. The “Veep” vibe is stronger and sharper, with characters gnarling out insults that seem to turn common obscenities into metrical poetry. And it’s not just Kieran Culkin’s Roman spouting profane wit, although that has been his forte since the start. The whole gang finds full expression for their formidable stress in the art of verbal abuse, as they continue to ruthlessly jockey for Dad’s seat at the table — oh, and his love, too. The scripts are [chef’s kiss].
And there’s a special amount of stress in the rarefied air of the Roy family this season, as it picks up where season two left off two years ago, with Kendall throwing his father under the bus regarding the sexual abuses and coverups in the cruise division of Waystar Royco — “Judas-ing” him, to use Kendall’s own word. In the new episodes, which are frenetically paced, Kendall leans into his rebellion, and he tries to bring his siblings, and Cousin Greg, of course, onto his side. They are or they are not with him, depending on which way the wind seems to be blowing (and cracking its cheeks). Meanwhile, Logan is in a tizzy, as pressure for him to step back mounts — a tizzy that finds Brian Cox at his barkiest, growliest best, the alpha in his pack of nepotistic wolves. “No one talks to the snake,” he warns them about Kendall.
This season more than ever, Kendall appears to be off his rocker, deluding himself into believing he’s a rock star winning the PR battle with his father because the media is breathlessly dragging him, ridicule being attention. He runs a war room to get help with his attack plan, but he sticks to his own demented stratagems in a stupor of desperation, practically yelling out “BWAHAHA” as he deploys wokeness to bring his father down. Of course, he could care less about the cruise division’s rape culture (and wait for the brilliant needle drop of Nirvana’s “Rape Me”); looking a bit like Mark Zuckerberg, the empty bro next door, he has an amoral hunger behind his eyes. Once again, Jeremy Strong delivers a performance as rich in cracked comedy as it is in pathos.
This season, the politics and the parallels between the Roys and the real-life Murdoch family are even more pronounced, as Logan tries to fight an investigation by manipulating coverage on his Fox News-like channel, ATN. Many of the episodes are, as usual, set at parties and events, and this season one of the hours takes place at a Future Freedom Summit, where the link between ATN and the choice of political nominees is overt. In real life, these ethical crimes are sickening; on “Succession,” they are satire at its most stinging, as power mongers dismiss a possible candidate for his nervous lip-licking tic.
The ever-shifting alliances this season are more complicated than you’ll find on the dodgiest season of “Survivor.” Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman are simultaneously a team and more feverishly competitive, as is the Roy wont. They are rich and shrewd but miserable, along with everyone else — except, perhaps, Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), who isn’t rich and definitely isn’t shrewd. Watching him stumble naively among his ruthless relatives is, as always, a treat. If the writers could be accused of fan service, it might be regarding Greg, who gets played and played again this season, Braun as entertainingly artless as ever.
As always, Greg’s scenes with Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom are a savage take on Laurel and Hardy, as Tom obsesses over the possibility of doing jail time and, as usual, vents his frustrations on the only person lower than him in the litter. Like everyone else in this game of corporate thrones, Tom is always ready to step on a fellow soldier on his way to the top.
Starring: Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Ruck, J. Smith-Cameron, Nicholas Braun, Sanaa Lathan
On HBO, Sunday at 9 p.m.