There have been many TV characters I love to hate. Remember Joffrey Baratheon, the incest-bred bastard whose sadism, arrogance, brattiness, and cowardice were despicable? I couldn’t get enough of him. When he ugly-died, choking from poison, vomit and blood running down his cheeks, I was happy, of course — but sad, too, since he was so entertaining. At least we still have his mother, Cersei, sept-burner extraordinaire, an unrepentant shame walker who continues to manipulate and betray with abandon.
They have no redeeming qualities, these odious people, except that they are riveting. I’m not talking about the noisy reality players who get attention because they’ve been coached to pick fights, throw drinks, and hurl incendiary insults; I’m talking about characters written to be fabulously, stylishly, and sometimes subtly, bad to the bone.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve been loving “Succession,” the HBO drama that features an ensemble of vile characters who outdo one another in the amorality department. The show, which finishes its first season on Sunday night, is a crazy good time, as media mogul — and King Lear stand-in — Logan Roy begins to fail physically, and, as if he’s chum in the water, his children start circling him. They, along with his corporate competitors, can smell the money and power waiting to be snagged. There’s absolutely nothing inspiring or uplifting about “Succession,” just a lot of shameless dog-eat-dog action that is hard to look away from.
It’s not easy to make a show about creeps appealing — usually on nighttime soap operas, which “Succession” is in an HBO kind of way, there are Krystles on the scene to compensate for all the Alexises. In this case, there’s no one to root for. But the nasty Roy family — often compared to the Murdochs and the Trumps — is twisted enough, in wily ways, to fascinate. It’s a bit like “Billions,” in that creator Jesse Armstrong (“The Thick of It”) understands that, if the game — money, rivalry, cheating, dominating — is good enough, and the characters are gnarly and intriguing enough, the presence of virtue is unnecessary. You get caught up in wondering which one of this gang of Gordon Gekkos will be the first — though not the last — to lose all.
Logan, ferociously clinging to his power more than ever, now that it is truly in jeopardy, is a monster — or worse, a scared monster. In one scene midseason, a hater throws urine in his face as he walks into his office building, and, well, it seemed fair enough (like Rupert Murdoch, Logan owns controversial media properties). Played perfectly loathsomely by Brian Cox, Logan appears to dislike his four children — three sons, Connor, Kendall, and Roman, and one daughter, Shiv — as intensely as they dislike him, but since he’s the parent, he’s worse. He toys with their needs, baiting and switching, luring them in with promises only to demoralize. He is particularly harsh with Kendall (Jeremy Strong), pushing the recovering addict back into using and, memorably, peeing in his son’s office like a desperate alpha dog.
For a minute early on, Roman (Kieran Culkin) looked like the decent child. He’s a joker, and he didn’t seem to take the Roy business clashes too seriously. He’s self-aware, too. Quickly, though, we saw that he is no better than the others, particularly with his misogyny, his excesses, and his bad ideas. Connor (Alan Ruck), the disinterested oldest sibling, also appeared to be worth rooting for, until the depths of his idiocy and fear were revealed. Kendall began the show as the obvious winner, poised to move the company into the digital future after his father’s retirement. But he revealed his weakness as soon as his father reversed his retirement plans. He tried to stage a coup, which failed miserably, and he is now hoping to push a hostile takeover. He has a self-destructive streak that renders him cringe-worthy, pathetic, and, it seems, doomed. Shiv, meanwhile, is cheating on her fiance, at odds with her father, and siding with the enemy, in this case by working for a politician played by Eric Bogosian who is going after one of the Roy media properties.
Shiv’s fiance, Tom, by the way, is one of the show’s best characters. Played by Matthew Macfadyen, Tom is nakedly ambitious, and he comically, and neurotically, works to make family newcomer — cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) — the runt of the litter. He is a model of obsequiousness with Shiv’s family, but with Greg, he’s fairly mad. Just when he seems like he’s a puppy dog, a guy nervous about entering such a shark tank of a family, he does or says something that bares his own greed and ethical shortcomings. That game of peek-a-boo is endlessly amusing.
Sure, to some extent Logan’s children are victims of Logan, and of his money. They act like children because they weren’t raised — or, rather, they were raised by a beast. But the show only teases us with that, before reminding us of how they are nonetheless grotesquely self-serving adults. All of them, together, represent the very worst of the one percent. Maybe that’s one important reason the show is catching on: These filthy rich people are unenviable. They can’t even enjoy their power and money because they are lost in the struggle to maintain power and make more money. Watching them try to take one another down certainly has its pleasures.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.