The new HBO drama “Succession” won’t let you know where it’s going until you start watching. It begins in 2007, at the middle of a lucrative business run by various members of the Thane (Jonathon Brandmeier, from “Gilmore Girls”) family. (No, we don’t know who’s on which side.) Shortly after their father snaps — well, I say snaps, but he’s struggling with dementia — five or six have to try to run the company, while any sane person knows there is likely to be a messy “shake-up.”
That shake-up does not come until three hours in, but what we do know is that three or four — it’s a family, so who knows? — are in, that one or two others are out, and that the relations are poisonous. Joe Morton (“House of Cards”) plays the patriarch, and he is maddening enough already, an iron-willed everyman with an imperious Scottish accent and an old flame, Tessa Dawes (Iain Glen), ready to snatch him away and the family asset or two at her disposal. Back and forth he goes, hurtling from family drama to family drama and, occasionally, to offices of the shadowy, grasping corporation known as the Murdoch family of media fortunes. If being the head of News Corp. is as much a slog as that sounds, you can expect worse here.
As the plot takes shape, this is HBO’s opportunity to shine, but the story, written by “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci, is the kind of thing that will come as a relief only after a full-throttle flight. It’s personal, it’s dull, it’s soap opera, but it’s one you’re going to need.
Perhaps because there are so many of them, these TV “family” stories are rarely as gripping as the film versions and, unfortunately, there’s an odor of “Who the hell wants to see this” about it. “Succession” does a terrific job of milking the big familial event for the drama it deserves, with full-throttle fire from Brandmeier and Jodi Balfour, as the countess and potential successor to Joe Thane. But, in itself, the familial mayhem might not inspire much.
Rounding out the cast are Ed Speleers, Elizabeth McGovern and Rupert Friend, again playing siblings-in-law — divorced parents of Emma (Balfour) and Richard (John Stephens) and everything else you’d expect in a “stolen”-hipster city set. We also see the “serious” Thane, a conceit Iannucci has come to embrace, playing against type.
If the thumbnails of these siblings are inadequate, the fun of “Succession” is in the ways they are saved by others. On this show, the Christian Duplass, playing Joe’s chief of staff-type of a brother Tom, is like a gay shark in the mood to drink off the high of his boss. His first appearance launches the series, with some slapstick promised, but played in more masterful fashion later. As the timid, ineffectual-sounding Roger Thane, never more than your representative of modern corporate lassitude, Toby Jones makes a villainy out of the job.
Still, there’s no disputing that “Succession” is what the first half of the hour is called, though Iannucci and everyone else involved may just as well call it “Survivor,” one episode at a time. Ultimately, there’s no point in trying to dream up an alternative to the basic appeal of an intergenerational blood feud — but, finally, there’s the payoff. As with the news of the news that these feuding children are in the hot seat again, you know better, and, somehow, you can hardly wait to see how this one turns out.
“Succession” airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.