'Succession' spins media dynasty into juicy HBO drama

Brian Cox in 'Succession'

(CNN)The obvious parallels to media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his brood provide the juicy point of entry to "Succession," a new HBO drama. Yet the series quickly takes on a life of its own, with an assortment of eccentric, almost uniformly unlikable characters, recalling that on TV, anyway, great wealth tends to breed a lot of high-class, outlandish problems.

The description of Logan Roy, the architect behind the fifth-largest media company in the world and a "pal to prime ministers," certainly possesses a Murdoch-ian vibe, although the producers say they drew inspiration from a number of different dynastic enterprises. Moreover, his company has a strong family-run tilt to it, with son Kendall (Jeremy Strong, upgraded from "Masters of Sex" to master of the universe) sitting as the ostensible heir apparent to dear old dad, who is played, sensationally, by Brian Cox.
Like Murdoch, the thrice-wed Roy has several children, including an older son (Alan Ruck) from his first marriage, younger party boy (Kieran Culkin) and a daughter, "Shiv" (Sarah Snook), who has stepped out of the business orbit to working in political consulting but isn't far removed from familial politics. In an introductory scene, Kendall is dismissed as a "daddy's boy" when a big deal he's trying to engineer blows up in his face, serving notice both of the weight that comes from nepotism, as well as the assumption that the apple might have fallen uncomfortably far from the tree.
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"Every intern on the street knows that you're stepping up," Kendall is told, making his promotion appear inevitable. But his father has other ideas, at least, until the company is thrown into chaos when he experiences a health scare.
    Created by Jesse Armstrong, directed by Adam McKay (who tackled high finance in "The Big Short") and counting Frank Rich ("Veep") among its producers, "Succession" has put together first-rate teams both in front of and behind the camera. The former includes Matthew Macfadyen, playing against type as Shiv's incredibly needy boyfriend, who works for Roy's company and is painfully desperate to earn his approval.
    Not all the wrinkles work, including a subplot involving a young nephew (Nicholas Braun) who is essentially cast in the role of minnow among the sharks, trying to claim a piece of his birthright. As noted, some might also be put off by the general unpleasantness of the characters, who seem to care little for the collateral damage that their high-stakes machinations inflict -- a scenario that hasn't made Showtime's "Billions," it should be noted, any less entertaining.
    While "Succession" shares certain attributes with that show, its closest cousin might actually be "Weapons of Mass Distraction," a brilliant and prescient 1997 HBO movie -- written by Larry Gelbart -- about a feud between two media moguls, who wielded their far-flung assets like pawns on a chessboard.
    The new series doesn't quite rise to that level, but it does become more engrossing over the episodes previewed -- reveling in the darkly comic discomfort, in one noteworthy example, of the most awkward Thanksgiving dinner imaginable.
    "We need a more dynamic strategy," Kendall -- who Strong invests with a mix of insecurity, frustration and thinly veiled anger -- tells the company's board at one point. "Because steady as she goes, it's the iceberg."
    There could always be still be icebergs ahead in keeping the storyline going, and the premise doesn't feel especially compatible with "Westworld," which the series will initially follow. But given the complicated nature of the subject matter, "Succession" has navigated its launch in impressive fashion.
    "Succession" premieres June 3 at 10 p.m. on HBO.