‘Succession’ Is an Unblinking Critique of White One Percenters’ Control Over Wealth — And Funny Because It’s True

Jesse Armstrong and Adam McKay spoke to IndieWire about calling out America's disproportionate distribution of wealth through scathing honesty.
Succession Matthew Macfadyen Sarah Snook Brian Cox
Colin Hutton/HBO

In an era where attention is finally — and rightly — being steered toward diversity on television, HBO’s “Succession” can’t hide from the fact it’s very, very white. Following the internal fight for power among a white American family who controls one of the biggest media and entertainment conglomerates in the world, the Roys are as Caucasian as they come.

But the casting and characters are no accident; Jesse Armstrong created the new drama to shine a light on a systemic national issue connected to how old money protects its own and excludes everyone else.

“Amongst the [richest] families [in America], we’re discussing the Roberts, the Redstones, the Murdochs,” Armstrong told IndieWire. “There’s not a whole lot of people of color in those families, so that’s reflected in our show.”

With cutting humor built from earnest (and often oblivious) remarks among the Roys, “Succession” is a brutal look at a privileged world that’s so uncomfortable to witness, audiences are left squirming for 60 straight minutes.

“It’s a show reflecting how the world is, not how we would wish it to be, so that’s our territory,” Armstrong said. “We reference and portray an America that’s not phony in terms of the wide world that we inhabit, but the family is a white, powerful family because that’s who those people are.”

“I really feel like the story is the story of our times,” executive producer and director Adam McKay said in a separate interview. “That if you want to look at the radical change that happened in the world, not just America, it’s really the story of a lot of these wealthy, dynastic families stepping up and really putting their power and their money towards altering the world.”

"Succession" Season 1 Alan Ruck, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Nicholas Braun
“Succession”Peter Kramer/HBO

Armstrong originally wrote a “short film or play” focused on Rupert Murdoch, but eventually realized there was more freedom within a fictional story. During his research, he became fixated on the infamous quote from Summer Redstone that he didn’t need to plan his succession because he was never going to die.

“It struck me that there was something […] common in that [way of thinking] about mortality, and a sort of almost pharaoh-ish or king-like desire to reach immortality by having your empire live on after you,” Armstrong said. “[It’s] a quite human impulse, but slightly megalomaniacal, as well. So, I guess I started thinking from that about the common themes across these big media families, and feeling like could there be a show in that about a fictional family. As I read more about the American media landscape, well, it’s absolutely chocker of these dynastic situations which lead to a lot of pain.”

Armstrong also said he’s very much in favor of television featuring as many stories as possible of the “richness and diversity in American life,” but his own series’ inclusive casting can be seen elsewhere, and it’s quite savvy. Each of the main characters is white, but so many threats to the Roy’s wealth — whether in the short or long term — represent minorities. There’s Lawrence (played by Rob Yang), the founder and CEO of a digital media company the Roy family is trying to acquire, and then there’s the gardener’s son in the pilot, who almost wins a life’s worth of money off Roman’s rigged bet.

“That’s my favorite scene. That’s my absolute favorite scene,” McKay said of the moment when Roman offers a child $1 million if he hits a home run during a pickup softball game. “First off, the way Kieran [Culkin] plays Roman is a little bit funny because he’s such an oblivious train wreck. Then the turn it takes towards becoming incredibly dark, and all of a sudden you realize you’re standing over a bottomless pit. You just realized the depravity of these people, even though some of them kind of recognize it’s wrong.”

McKay wanted to emphasize that the gardener’s family was real, but also representative of a larger group; these are the real humans being teased with the dream of a better life that people like the Roys won’t let them have.

“To me that scene was everything,” McKay said. “Without that scene in the pilot, I feel like it’s not the same show. I feel, that turn, you don’t see it coming, and then when you see it, everything has a different meaning in the entire show, off of that one scene. […] We wanted it to be strange and wrong and also, from the kid’s perspective, kind of wondrous.”

Succession Season 1 Brian Cox
Alan Ruck and Brian Cox in “Succession”Peter Kramer/HBO

For his part, Armstrong worried about writing characters who were so monstrous they wouldn’t be funny or interesting.

“I hope people will enjoy these characters who are not easy, good people on the whole,” he said. “In comedy, you often write people who are not the best people, and you mine their faults for a comic perspective.”

McKay utilized similar directing techniques seen in his Oscar-nominated film “The Big Short” to add additional levity. His careful zooms and mobile camera often function like a head on a swivel, constantly trying to absorb the wild eccentricities of the spoiled subjects.

“I love this goal of having it be dramatic, yet comedic in a way as well,” McKay said. “I wouldn’t ever really call it straight up satire, because it’s not. I love that challenge as well because I really believe the genres are changing and melding and warping.”

McKay and Armstrong make a great team, striking the balance both strive for over a steadily improving first season.

“It’s kind of real, hopefully,” Armstrong said. “It’s engaged with the issues and thoroughly researched, not uninterested in the people, but not hopefully, I wouldn’t say, in my estimation glamorizing their situation.”

Glamour may be the name of the Roys’ game, but it’s hard to imagine anyone wishing they were just like any of the deplorable white guys.

“Succession” airs new episodes Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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