Crossing the Stream: Part 59 - "Succession" Sn 1, Eps 1-10

I'm back in the habit, Sister Act 2 style...I guess.

After getting back on track, I'm losing weight again. That's cool. It's coming slower than it did before, and I'm certainly starting to notice the missed meals here and there like I never did before. Headaches have accompanied my calorie-light days, while heartburn always seems to wake me up the morning after a calorie-heavy day. So, the message here is that I haven't found a working balance that will allow me to lose weight while also feeling physically normal. That...well, that kind of sucks, but you know that whole saying about beggars and choosers. But I'm actually down by 45 pounds total, bringing me further than I ever have been before. It works if you work it, as most recovering addicts will tell you.

In the meantime, I had an interview the other day for a job that sounds like it will really fit me. I hope I did okay. I happen to dislike the hiring process, since it always feels like varying degrees of theatrical performance, and it really didn't help that my costume didn't fit. Since losing that first big chunk of myself, I've managed to update my wardrobe a little bit. I was mainly focused on pants that wouldn't fall off, however, and I neglected to grab any dress attire to replace what is still hanging in my closet. Much like a little boy, I only have one full three-piece suit, and only a handful of dressy shirts, slacks, and jackets. All of them were bought (and some tailored) to 2010-2014 Kyle. The shirts are now tents. Perpetually wrinkled tents, with sleeves that hang slack like a wizard robe. Picture a really nice blue-silver pinstripe shirt with the proportions of Jerry Seinfeld's puffy pirate shirt from that one episode. With that sitting firmly in the back of my head, I traveled to the other side of Portland via train, sat in a lobby, and eventually made it to an upstairs conference room constantly trying in vain to adjust my shirt. I hope the words out of my mouth distracted (in a good way) from this.

Family and friends are trying their damnedest to impress upon me that I look much thinner. I've been called "flaco" by more than one sister-in-law, and in a chance meeting in a department store my wife's aunt asked me why I wasn't eating anymore. Fact of the matter is, my imposter syndrome won't even let me have this. I don't feel very different, physically, so everyone's reaction feels less than real. My Brain thinks everyone is trying to be really polite and supportive. After all, who doesn't like seeing a fat guy lose a few pounds and take care of himself? It gives us all hope for our own goals, it becomes a life-affirming human interest story that everyone can get behind, and it costs nothing to tell him "Hey, you look good." Yeah, Brain, that must be it. It couldn't possibly be that my weight loss is actually noticeable to everyone who doesn't share my warped perspective. They're just all really good friends and family who are trying to help. Because I'm an obviously broken person who needs help, according to Brain. Man, Brain is kind of an asshole. He won't let me have anything.

But really, all Brain is trying to do is keep me vigilant. It feels like I could be filling out that puffy shirt again in no time if I don't constantly watch myself. Especially with coworkers gearing up for the cold weather months, with Halloween candy free-flowing since August and someone testing cheesecake recipes out on the team. Every plate of teriyaki, every stolen handful of cheese crackers from the pantry, and every whiff of chocolate comes with a number attached to it that I don't like, usually the calories or the sugar content.

I know, what a terrible pickle for me to be in, being offered cheesecake and having to decline. How ever will I recover?

"Succession" Season 1, Episodes 1-10

This is a great show to pedal along with, because it's a show that feeds off its own inflated intensity. There are melodramatic push-ins to close-up shots at big narrative beats, people are screaming foul obscenities at each other, and everything feels suspiciously real in its decadent disregard for anyone who lives below the $10 million mark. I think I lost a few pounds this week just out of rage for the Roy family and how they continue to carve up their empire among each other, disrupting high stakes politics and covering up crimes just to spite each other and to win another fraction of a percentage point.

HBO started the "golden age of television" trend of a morally bankrupt protagonist whose flaws and psychosis are only barely superseded by their charisma. Now, a full twenty years after Tony Soprano became America's number-one monster to root for, the ultimate idea of evil is best personified in the 2018 brand of American mafia: a family-owned media conglomerate headed by a pack of ruthless, degenerate, myoptic, reckless nutcases and idiots modeled after the Murdoch and Trump families. The resulting dramedy, "Succession," can easily pick up a lot of kudos for being  timely as hell, but after watching the entire first season I'm still not positive what the show's aims are.

The series opens every episode with a strings-heavy orchestral theme played over some antiquated footage of New York elites in their country club habitats. It's practically the theme song to "Game of Thrones" in its intensity and pomp, and the corresponding title footage seems to lean into the idea of modern day American wealth having a touch of the baroque, Shakespearean grandiosity of a monarchical dynasty. This is the realm of demigods, men and women who have little to no perspective on what it means to pay bills or feed their family. Those are little matters, for little people. The Roys are big people. And by that, I mean each character is a political cartoon in flesh form.

Patriarch Logan Roy, age 80, is an intellectual brick wall whose dicey health and possible mental deterioration mean less than nothing when he can lean on the President of the United States, disappear people with only a few words, and buy the entire world five times over. For a media mogul, he's laughably behind the times of his own industry and banishes anyone and anything from his sight that isn't gushing admiration for his success. This means the transition from Logan's reign as CEO of Waystar-Roy to a worthy successor is already complicated, before you meet his children and confidants. Eldest son Kendall is a recovering addict who has his father's fierce business sense, but cannot escape a crippling little boy syndrome that aches for his father's approval or respect. Failing that, he'd settle for being the architect of his father's downfall just to be seen as a worthy opponent. Younger son Roman is a picture of excessive wealth without any responsibility: he's a raging id of MAGA party-bro with no discernible skills at all beyond sheer audacity, and his very powerful emotional problems can only bubble idly beneath his provocateur swagger. Daughter Siobahn is possibly the best functioning of the Roy dynasty, having left the family firm to play the political game, but she's currently having trouble balancing her place beside a Bernie Sanders type of "man of the people" candidate and the decidedly opposite slant of her birthright.

When the show is busying itself with the dramatics, it works very well. Boardroom battles and sneaky hostile takeovers combined with the Roy family penchant for spitting pure venom leads to a brilliant evolution of the prime-time soap operas of the 1980s that dealt largely with families of high privilege sniping at each other. For every "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest," here is the HBO version matching them backstab-for-backstab. And the creators of the show drew on that forgotten genre purposefully, if only to immediately pair it with the stark lighting and set design of a modern period drama and the editing, dialogue, and "lifestyle porn" of some other HBO winners like "Entourage."

That's about where the show trips over itself, is the bemused and shrugging comedy depiction of extreme wealth. There's a firm need for every extravagance--like, say, gold leaf drinks, an exclusive underground sex and drugs club, helicopter rides, etc.--to come with some insidious string attached or a withering look of disapproval from someone with better perspective. A lot of it is played for laughs and derision, particularly with the characters of Tom and Greg. Tom is Siobahn's fiancee, a former yokel from St. Paul who is pleased as punch to be a trophy husband as long as he gets to treat "lower" people like complete shit and throw hissy fits over every mundane inconvenience. Greg, a distant cousin, is a mid-twenties doof who shows up and conveniently slides into the family dynamic during a crisis. Frequently when the show is trying to take the piss out of the one percent, the gag will involve Tom barely containing his enthusiasm for stupid rich person stuff, such as eating an illegal songbird whole under the cover of a linen napkin. As his foil, Greg is perpetually confused and horrified by the waste, abuse, and the naked contempt that rich people perpetuate for anything that might distract from their hedonism for more than a moment. Does this translate to self-awareness? In spots. It's conveying a palpable ugly truth about what my extreme-left friends like to call "late stage capitalism." Is it funny? No, not really. It's hard to watch, primarily because it lands so close to home.

"Succession" is not so much a plot-heavy show, however, than it is a performance-heavy show. While Brian Cox plays Logan as some primordial leviathan rising from the depths, he also manages to portray a startlingly human vulnerability during the old man's scattered mental moments, and during his toddler-like tantrums over even the most mild dissent. It's part King Lear, but it's also part Rip Torn impression. Mark Strong and Kieran Culkin are vying for the best non-official depiction of the Trump sons. Strong approaches the Kendall character as a sweaty, chin-less, greasy schemer who tries to make up for his lack of credibility with an affected, Gordon Gekko intensity. A Generation X dork, he unironically sings along with hip-hop music in the back of his limo, calls grown men in his orbit "dude," and still manages to treat every moment as if it's a bombshell revelation that changes the fabric of society. Culkin, by contrast, leans into his natural slouching smarm that we saw in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, wearing the easy smirk of the bulletproof rich kid and speaking only in quips and asides. He's the smartest one in the room and has a withering comment for everyone...right up until he has to make decisions and do his job as the company's COO, which in and of itself is so deftly pathetic. One son tries his damnedest to look like a real-deal business man, while the other galavants in his lack of responsibility and accountability. And when the chips are down, both look like utter buffoons for different reasons.

Sarah Snook, true to her character Siobahn, gives a much more subtle, cagey demeanor. Regurgitating the reactions and opinions that are expected of her, and only betraying real emotion in eye movement and her command of breath, Snook seems to understand that Siobahn is a utilitarian person who doesn't allow herself the time or effort to feel bad. And of course, I'd be remiss to not include Alan Ruck as the show's chief scene-stealer as eldest brother Conner, who abdicates the family business to live in a compound in the desert, mistaking his Ted Kaczynski ideals for those of Thoreau. Ruck is 62 years old, and somehow plays Conner as if he's the youngest and most clueless of the siblings without it feeling too jokey. He pretentiously pushes Gwyneth Paltrow-esque lifestyle nonsense, he inserts himself into situations and instantly makes it about himself, and he does it all with a 500-watt nice guy smile, fully assured that as long as he maintains a mask of serenity and objectivity it puts him morally above everyone around him. Ruck as Conner is the perfect comedy relief character who believes himself to be the protagonist of the story, all evidence to the contrary. I'm not going to lie, I just love Alan Ruck.

I'm not sure where "Succession" will go if a Season 2 is in order. The first season starts in such a state of precarious balance and ends in the very darkest depths of wealthy, evil despair that the only way to come back from it is probably with a time-jump and a reconnoitering of each character's position. I wonder if the show might try a little harder to bolster the comedy angle, or play up the soap opera bombastics. Those are the only things I can think of that would bump this show up from "very well crafted diversion" and into the territory of "sly, contemporary, layered obsession" for folks. I highly recommend it just for how current and in-the-moment it is, as well as the admirable work from the cast, but keep in mind that watching too much of it could lead you to murmur "eat the rich" under your breath more often.

Rating: B

Previous Post Next Post