TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The Emmy-nominated series "Succession" tells the story of a family whose members struggle for control of the media empire founded by its patriarch. The second season begins Sunday night on HBO. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has seen the first five episodes and says that if you haven't caught up with season one, go back and see it because you don't want to miss season two.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It says something about our overwrought times that so much of today's high-end television feels downright Jacobean, bursting with violence, brutal satire and corrosive cynicism. Show after show focuses on the rich and powerful behaving badly - the murdering president of "House Of Cards," the virulent Wall Street antagonists on "Billions" and all those would-be rulers slaughtering thousands on "Game Of Thrones." No show boasts a more unregenerate cast of characters than "Succession," the fantastically entertaining HBO series whose second season begins on August 11.
A darkly funny riff on "King Lear," the show is about members of a family struggling for control of a media empire that looks a lot like Rupert Murdoch's. Not one of them is likable. There are no Cordelia's here, but all of them are fun.
At the center of things is Logan Roy, played with bristling authority by Brian Cox, a self-made billionaire who claims he's looking for a successor to run his right-wing media empire, Waystar Royco. Because his goofy eldest Connor - that's Alan Ruck - doesn't want the job, he has three other spoiled kids to choose from. The heir apparent Kendall, touchingly played by Jeremy Strong, tries so hard to be a thuggish businessman that the stress drives him to drugs. The wastrel son Roman - that's a terrific Kieran Culkin - is a mosquito of a man who hides his ambition beneath jokey schadenfreude.
And Dad's favorite Siobhan, played by a sly Sarah Snook, is a cold-blooded political consultant whose nickname, Shiv, says it all. She's married to a Waystar exec she doesn't respect, an insecure climber plagued with thrilling self-abasement by Matthew Macfadyen, who's the kind of guy who sucks up and kicks down.
Season one was about Logan deciding not to pass the torch after all, a decision that unleashed a bevy of schemes, betrayals, edible hatreds, sibling rivalries, cruel jibes, untimely deaths and Logan's worst enemies trying to takeover Waystar Royco, with help from Kendall. The season ended not with the usual hokey cliffhanger, but deepened to a quietly sinister finale tinged with a genuine sense of tragedy.
The new season finds everyone in shifting roles and alliances as Logan fights the hostile takeover. Kendall is in disgrace. Roman is bursting with cocky self-hatred. Siobhan is working for a Bernie Sanders-like presidential candidate. And even Connor, a smug dilettante who collects Napoleon memorabilia, has big plans.
Here, the chastened Kendall, who can never escape his father's grasp, gets called into the old man's office to explain that hostile takeover.
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BRIAN COX: (As Logan Roy) Now you, step up onto the rack. I'm going to pull you limb from limb like a piÃ±ata and see what falls out.
JEREMY STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) OK, so you want what?
COX: (As Logan Roy) I want the game plan - what the timetable is, capital structure, end game, what they might accept, what their weak points are. But we'll start at the start. When did they approach you?
STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) When did they approach me?
COX: (As Logan Roy) Mmm hmm. Did it take long, or did you open your legs on the first date?
STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Well, no. They took their time to persuade me to...
COX: (As Logan Roy) Betray me.
STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) Yeah.
COX: (As Logan Roy) Well, that's nice.
POWERS: "Succession" was created by the English writer Jesse Armstrong, who once worked with Armando Iannucci, known for "Veep" and "The Death Of Stalin." This show shares their gleeful depiction of the conniving and cowardly ways that people can be out for themselves. Because Logan enjoys humiliating people - just wait until episode three - his family and underlings treat him like a bull in a china shop - if, that is, the bull owned the china shop, it was worth billions, and their whole future depended on making it happy.
His kids want power, too, but they lack his pure animal instinct. As season two makes clear, they dislike the right-wing rabidness of the company's news channel, whose rising star turns out to have a thing for Hitler. And they harbor doubts about Logan's plan to save the company, not that they'll ever say so to his face. They know that when Logan asks their opinion, he doesn't actually want it. He's just trying to suss out disagreement, which, of course, he considers treachery.
The Roy's are less a family than spiders in a jar fighting for a fly. And the show's pleasure lies in how cleverly plotted and superbly acted the machinations are. We enjoy watching, say, Kendall or Siobhan feel sure they're going to be Dad's successor, only to discover how many trapdoors remain on the way to the throne.
The show's moments of genuine emotion are all the more powerful because they emerge from what seems like black comedy. While I don't want to overstate "Succession's" seriousness, the show perfectly captures one aspect of our historical moment. It paints a savage portrait of a family so busy protecting its privilege that their lives aren't merely monstrously immoral, but profoundly loveless. The sheer joy looseness of their existence is almost enough to make us feel sympathy for them. Then we remember that none of them, not one, would ever feel sympathy for anybody like us.
POWERS: John Powers who viewed the second season of "Succession," which returns to HBO Sunday.
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GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with comic and actor Wanda Sykes, who's Netflix standup special is nominated for two Emmys, or with New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino, who's new collection of essays is written from the perspective of a feminist millennial, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE'S "CHORO MALUCO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.