Family dynamics of dysfunctional dynasties

Brian Cox (left) and Jeremy Strong in Succession.
Brian Cox (left) and Jeremy Strong in Succession. PHOTO: HBO

Family fights vibrate at a frequency that brings out the worst in many.

Maybe it is that folks regress to the age they were when they first fought, or that civilities fall away when clashing with those you know so intimately.

Two comedy series hilariously channel that pettiness and viciousness but up the stakes by focusing on uniquely powerful families: one runs a global media empire and the other, a wealthy megachurch.

Succession's second season picks up the story of ageing media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his four adult children Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), Siobhan (Sarah Snook) and Connor (Alan Ruck), who continue to snipe at one another as they jockey for their father's affections and his crown.

As with Season 1, there are echoes of the frictions rumoured to divide real families such as the Murdochs and the Trumps, which lend themselves to some speculative thrills and give the show a certain currency.

But the series is much more than a straight satire - although in the hands of creator Jesse Armstrong, who wrote the foul-mouthed Whitehall send-up The Thick Of It (2005 to 2012), it is an excellent one.

Few dramas or comedies so precisely capture the exquisite mind games people play and the ambivalence that clouds even loving relationships - whether it is the open marriage Siobhan snookered her new husband into or the way Logan manipulates his children.

The first season ended with him directing the cover-up of a fatal car crash Kendall was involved in - a plotline borrowed from the late senator Edward Kennedy's 1969 accident in Chappaquiddick (2017).

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Logan used this to blackmail his son into backing off a hostile takeover bid the latter was orchestrating against his father.

Kendall now seems a broken man, content to just be Dad's good little soldier.

Connor, meanwhile, is pressing on with what all believe to be a no-hope run for The White House. Roman keeps plumbing new depths of callowness and Logan secretly promises Siobhan she will be his successor.

But in the four episodes previewed, I already sense more cruel twists ahead.

You also realise this carefully crafted show isn't just slamming the 1 per cent - although some of its best comedy skewers the grotesque privilege of this bunch, the savagery of it and, with the younger Roys, the sheer cluelessness.

It also makes an observation even non-dynastic families might relate to, which is that the children of the affluent often struggle to replicate their parents' success and may even be doomed by it.

The same point is made by The Righteous Gemstones, another family-feud comedy.

The satire here is more over the top, taking aim at the millionaire pastors who run vast megachurches fuelled by the unwavering devotion - and generous donations - of their flocks.

The Gemstones preside over one such church and are living large because of it. The mercenary nature of the enterprise is underscored by casino-like scenes of the rivers of cash that flow through it, including from the papal indulgence-like requests for special prayers.

But despite or perhaps because of this, the family is comically dysfunctional.

For patriarch Eli (John Goodman), children Jesse (Danny McBride), Kelvin (Adam Devine) and Judy (Edi Patterson) are a constant disappointment, and you can see why when they bicker and mess up even simple tasks.

When Jesse is blackmailed over a video of him engaging in unbecoming activities, he and his siblings try to handle it on their own, with predictably disastrous results.

Their juvenile behaviour gives the show an excuse to be just as childish and ridiculous with its jokes and gags - and this is on brand for series creator McBride, who is behind similar antihero-centred comedies such as Vice Principals (2016 to 2017).

Another McBride touch is for the comedy to get very dark very quickly, but also to morph sporadically into a surprisingly tender character drama.

Tonally, it is a juggling act and, in the six episodes provided for review, it is unclear if the show manages to keep all those balls in the air.

It scores extra marks, however, for taking on a milieu rarely seen in comedy and for leaning into the absurdity of it all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2019, with the headline 'Family dynamics of dysfunctional dynasties'. Print Edition | Subscribe