‘Succession’ Returns, With No Real People Involved

Deep into Season 3 of HBO’s “Succession,” Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the scion-gone-rogue of a family of media billionaires, tells his brother Roman (Kieran Culkin), “You’re not a real person.”

It’s a significant insult on this show, on which the question of who does and doesn’t qualify as “real” comes up repeatedly. Most shockingly, it arises in the corporate designation for incidents of sexual abuse and violence against workers on the cruise lines owned by the family business, Waystar Royco: “N.R.P.I.,” or No Real Person Involved.

This chilling language gets to a core theme of “Succession”: that today’s very rich have become more different from you and me than F. Scott Fitzgerald could have dreamed. The Roys, and the handful of hyper-rich that they move among, are not simply a breed apart from us. They have become another species.

“Succession,” whose scabrously funny third season begins Sunday, is superficially in the same genre as “Dynasty,” “Dallas” and other bygone soaps about the unhappy superrich. Minus the lyrically deployed obscenities, it would have fit perfectly on prime time in 1981 with its thumbnail premise — Kendall, Roman and their sister, Shiv (Sarah Snook), strive and connive to become either the favorite of their mogul dad, Logan (Brian Cox), or his destroyer.

But in key ways, the show is also nothing like its predecessors, because being rich is nothing like it used to be.

The wicked oil tycoons of ’80s TV soaps were different from you and me in the way of Ernest Hemingway’s rejoinder to Fitzgerald: They had more money. They used that money the way their viewers would have if they had won the lottery. The opening sequence of the original “Dynasty” is a time-capsule rendering of champagne wishes and caviar dreams, with John Forsythe cradling a snifter of something expensive and Joan Collins wearing bejeweled earrings the size of squash racquets.

Like wealth itself today, “Succession” is both a logical progression from its Reagan-era predecessors and something of an entirely different order. The show is made for a time when the richest are proportionally so much richer that it has made them alien. (Even the ones not literally going to space.)

Being rich, on “Succession,” does not look fun. If anything, it is aggressively anti-fun, as if fun itself were just a tatty concept for the lumpen masses who crowd the family’s amusement parks.

The show’s libido is not hot but warped; Roman, for instance, gets most aroused by being shamed and insulted, preferably by the family consigliere Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron). Its aesthetic is not glitzy but cold.

The opening episodes of the new season — which pick up immediately from Season 2’s climax, in which Kendall dramatically pinned the cruise-ship cover-ups on his father — take place largely in conference rooms and on tarmacs, in the interiors of airplanes and corporate cars. The Roys move from one sleek, arid bubble to another. Occasionally they go to parties, which look like conceptual art installations and feel like work.

Season 3 picks up shortly after the explosive charges leveled last season by the rebellious scion Kendall, played by Jeremy Strong, center.Credit…David M. Russell/HBO

Compared with the covetable glitter of ’80s soaps, the modern luxury of “Succession” is both unattainable and alienating. It says, not only will you never have this, you N.R.P., your primitive mind doesn’t even have the cultivation to want it.

This may be one reason that “Succession,” unlike its predecessors, is a niche sensation rather than a mass broadcast hit. It’s a bitter acquired taste, like expensive imported licorice, with twisted pleasures but little wish fulfillment.

Unless, at least, the wish is for untouchability. The Roys’ surname — roi, king — is an understatement. They are more like Greek gods. They may occasionally descend and sport among us. But they recognize obligations only to one another — if that — and they can be hurt only by their own transhuman kind. (Vulture reported that the creator, Jesse Armstrong, decided not to rewrite the new episodes to address Covid-19, in part on the theory that the pandemic doesn’t really touch people like them.)

The new season, the most overtly political and gleefully dark one yet, is focused on whether the forces of reckoning can penetrate the force fields of the Roys and their ilk. It is not optimistic.

As Logan musters his defense, he leans on the show’s fictional American president, an unseen Republican he derisively calls “the raisin.” In the end, raisins are grapes, and grapes are meant to be stomped. Or cultivated, when the old ones stop giving juice.

With an election looming, Logan — who owns a Fox-like cable news network with conservative king-making power — begins auditioning candidates, including a slick quasi-fascist played by Justin Kirk. To Logan, the leader of the free world is, as he puts it in Season 1, basically an “intern.” This may explain his contempt for the presidential ambitions of his oldest son, Connor (Alan Ruck): Connor’s dream isn’t just absurd, it’s slumming.

Is there anyone good in all of this? Shiv, once a political consultant of modest principle, has ideals she’ll cling to a touch longer than the other Roys, before discarding them like a champagne flute onto a waiter’s tray. Roman is an irresistible imp, but his eternal joking-not-joking mode makes him all the more sneakily dangerous, like a circa-2016 internet meme-lord.

Beyond the family core, you get to the characters who are merely morally weak in the way you or I might be if thrown into this world. Shiv’s husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), is an arriviste with a tormenting awareness of his dispensability. Greg (Nicholas Braun), a cousin from a poorer branch of the family, is delightfully squirmy, a worm constantly twisting to avoid the hook and maybe wriggle a few inches higher up the fishing line.

Greg’s haplessness makes him sympathetic, but is he honorable? His grandfather Ewan (James Cromwell), Logan’s embittered brother, tells him in the new season that he is “in the service of a monstrous enterprise.” Ewan may be a sanctimonious scold — he is the most principled and least likable character on the show — but he is not wrong.

That’s “Succession” for you. The best lack all charisma, while the worst are full of panache and intensity.

This is where the Kendall 2.0 of the new season is especially interesting. You might expect him, in rebel mode, to fill the Bobby Ewing good-guy role, and it’s hard to argue with his attack on the toxic Waystar culture.

But he comes off like a rich poseur trying to make idealism his #brand, manically quoting progressive catchphrases the way he spat bad rap at a Season-2 party for Logan. Morality, for him, is like an exciting new market in which he can claim first-mover advantage — or like a handy Oedipal cudgel to brain his father with.

James Cromwell (left, with Nicholas Braun) plays the most principled character in the show. He is also, not coincidentally, the least likable character in the show.Credit…Macall Polay/HBO

The only unifying figure is Logan, the blustering, manipulative Kronos whose children vie to make sure he doesn’t snack on them first. He always seems to be tantalizingly close to destruction — corporate, legal or physical — yet his kids can never shake the fear that he will rise vengefully from his sickbed like the father from Kafka’s “The Judgment.” There is no tyrant as absolute as the one who knew you when you were in diapers.

But the evil genius of “Succession” is that it knows that drama pulls the audience to want to root for someone regardless. You skip from one allegiance to another — Team Shiv, no, Team Gerri, no, Team Greg! — as if hopping barefoot on hot pavement. The viewers are like the citizens of a country fallen to one-party authoritarian rule. The good guys are not going to win; the good guys are not even in the game. You can only hope to see a terrible person do something terrible to a more terrible person.

This makes “Succession” both an addictive spectator sport and one of TV’s great horror stories. We N.R.P.s can enjoy it knowing that we have no stake, except for the tiny fact that people like the Roys run the world. And we can take comfort in the certainty that whoever wins out in this Greek drama — whoever, in Roman’s words, ends up “climbing Mount Olympus to be the new Dr. Zeus” — will at least have the decency not to enjoy it.

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