In the new HBO series “Succession,” premiering Sunday, Brian Cox plays Logan Roy, a lion-in-winter media tycoon with — how to put it — a succession problem.
Logan’s heir apparent is his son Kendall (Jeremy Strong), a recovering drug addict trying a wee bit too hard to put a 2.0 spin on his father’s ruthless omnipotence. Also in the mix is Logan’s misanthropic son Roman (Kieran Culkin), still sulking that he wasn’t handed the keys to dad’s movie studio, and daughter Siobhan (Sarah Snook), the apple of Logan’s eye, if only she wasn’t channeling her daddy issues into Democratic-machine politics.
As the pilot of “Succession” begins, Logan is dreading two things: pasture-hood and the related, imminent gathering of his extended family for his 80th birthday. The celebration plays out more like a U.S.-North Korea pre-summit, with comic relief provided by Logan’s first-born son Connor (Alan Ruck), a New Age ne’er-do-well, and a surprise guest in cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), who, suffice it to say, personifies everything that’s wrong with millennials.
Jesse Armstrong, the creator of “Succession,” is a satirist at heart. After writing acclaimed British sitcoms (“Peep Show,” “The Thick of It”), he moved on to satirical movies about the Anglo-American run-up to the Iraq war (“In the Loop”) and would-be terrorists (“Four Lions”). Some years ago, Armstrong wrote a screenplay about the inter-familial tumult in the house of Rupert Murdoch. The script, never produced, became a hot Hollywood property.
Armstrong is living to regret it.
“I think it’s quite sweet sometimes when people say to me, ‘Well, there’s this big media family, it must be Murdoch,’” Armstrong said recently of his new project. He was tucked into a table at a downtown Manhattan cafe with Cox, who referred casually to Armstrong as a genius.
“I’m like, ‘Well, you know your TV networks — CBS is Viacom and Redstone, NBC is Comcast and the Robertses, ABC was the Disneys,’” Armstrong said. He included, as well, the Sinclair family, buying up local TV, and the Mercers, of the data-mining-firm Cambridge Analytica fame.
Granted, Logan Roy is Murdoch-ish. Kendall accuses the old man of being catastrophically in love with “dead sector” assets like TV and print, and Logan’s theme park division is littered with hush payments that would make Murdoch’s scandal-plagued Fox News feel unworthy.
Cox, for his part, said he hardly needed to do deep mogul research, preferring osmosis and discovery to locate the self-made Logan, a character he speaks of with a grudging affection. On stage and screen, Cox, a Scots actor, has ripped through everything from King Lear and Winston Churchill to Hannibal Lecter (pre-Anthony Hopkins) and “Super Troopers.” In “Succession,” he gives a bravura performance that is at once relatively wordless, weirdly relatable and funny.
“In the Roy family, there is this trying to please the old man as a kind of modus operandi for all of them,” Cox said. “One of the problems they have — and it’s the deeper root of the story — is they have a sense of entitlement, but they don’t know where that entitlement comes from.
“And of course they are abused,” he continued. “The circumstances have abused them more than anything else. The father hasn’t helped, but the circumstances abuse them.”
The actor interrupted himself to reference a certain first family. “I mean, I look at Kushner and Ivanka opening that stupid, stupid embassy in Jerusalem, when everybody knows this doesn’t make sense. And why are they there? Not far away is mayhem. … And that’s also what this show touches on, I think. It touches on that entitlement, on people being more and more taken away from the plot.”
Asked what he meant by “plot,” Cox said, “The main thing of what you’re supposed to be doing in terms of how you enable your fellow man. I’m an egalitarian, you know.”
Armstrong admitted that “Succession” is more or less satirical, though for the record he prefers “family show” with “tonal variety,” à la “The Sopranos.” Viewers will come to recognize an aesthetic kinship with the HBO comedy “Veep.” Hand-held cameras push in to capture facial reactions and brutal inter-familial insults are slung. There is a lineage: Armando Iannucci, “Veep’s” creator, directed “In the Loop.”
Frank Rich, a prominent “Veep” writer, is now writing on “Succession.” The other bold-faced name attached to the project is Adam McKay, Will Ferrell’s producing partner and the writer-director of 2015’s “The Big Short.” McKay, who directed the pilot of “Succession,” said he thought a lot about the 2014 film “Foxcatcher,” which McKay called “one of the great unrecognized masterpieces of the last 20 years that really sums up where we’re at as a country.”
“Foxcatcher,” starring Steve Carell, is a true-crime story about a desiccated billionaire heir, John Eleuthère du Pont, who brings the have-not Olympic wrestlers Mark and David Schultz to his compound to create a dynasty in the sport and ends up killing one of the brothers.
“It’s about inbred, weird dynastic wealth and money eating itself, running headlong into something of virtue and fairness — wrestling,” McKay said. “I think that’s the story of our times. Dynastic wealth rotting through values and morals, step by step, case after case after case.”
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)