Summer TV Season Launches with HBO's Murdoch-esque Succession
Didn't get that beach body prepared? That's okay-grab some popcorn and hit the couch.
- Succession. HBO. Sunday, June 3, 10 p.m.
- Dietland. AMC. Monday, June 4, 9 p.m.
- Condor. Audience Network. Wednesday, June 6, 10 p.m.
Once upon a time, the first of June was generally a time to turn off the three-channel tube, which was mostly a wasteland of reruns and summer replacements, and head outside to practice genocide against anthills with firecrackers or see the USA in your Chevrolet.
But those days have gone the way of hula-hoops and the Olsen twins. The broadcast networks are a deluge of high-concept (Halle Berry knocked up by a space alien!) summer popcorn shows. And cable increasingly sticks to business as usual, rolling out new series all summer long.
So instead of The Ken Barry WOW Show, we have three highly promoted dramas debuting this week. Well, make that two and a comedy-drama, or two and an alleged comedy-drama, since the laughs in AMC's Dietland are about as frequent as vestal virgins napping on Harvey Weinstein's casting couch.
Joy Nash (of the telenovela spoof Stallions de Amor) plays the aggrieved heroine, underpaid and overworked young magazine writer Plum Kettle, whose confessional complaints to the camera include—but are far from limited to—the observation that "everyone calls me kettle, because I'm succulent and round, also known as fat." As a writerly bon mot that signifies Dietland's literary wit, that's a bit of a clunker because with the possible exception of the Hulk, who actually considers kettles "succulent'? Similar thuds occur with such regularity that they threaten to drown out Dietland's entire soundtrack, but alas, do not.
Plum's main duty is ghostwriting an advice column for the Hitlerian editor of a teen fashion magazine, played by Julianna Margulies with vigor that would make it quite amusing if you hadn't already seen it from Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
But Plum is increasingly distracted from the magazine job by recruitment efforts by two different militant feminist factions, one of which is aggressively killing off men accused of rape or sexual abuse while the other engages in propaganda acts against the beauty industry, which it calls "the dissatisfaction industrial complex."
Clearly some youthful voyage to self-discovery is afoot here, coupled with the liberation from a fat-demonizing patriarchy of rape-culturist male overlords—a kind of The Plus-Sized Handmaid's Tale. For viewers slow on the uptake, there's even a scene in which a member of Plum's weight-watch group has a complete meltdown, screaming that not only does she embrace her fatness but "I get more hot dick than I can handle!"
As a slogan, that's certainly more catchy than "Up against the walls, motherfuckers!" But ultimately, Dietland's ambitions as a chicklit revolutionary tract are as hard to take seriously as its laughless comic conceits. You don't have to be a sock-puppet of male hegemony to believe that the problems with weighing 300 pounds go way beyond the aesthetic.
Fortunately, the rest of the week's fare is much more appealing. The most interesting, if not necessarily the best, is the Audience Channel's Condor, unfortunately available only on AT&T-owned cable and satellite TV systems.
Condor is the latest incarnation of James Grady's 1974 spy novel Six Days of the Condor, among the first works to take advantage of Watergate-era paranoia about the real nature of the American government. In it, a bookish analyst in a small, obscure CIA office comes back from lunch one afternoon to discover his entire unit has been murdered. He quickly learns that the killing was ordered somewhere high in the CIA itself and that his employer is now hunting him for reasons he can't fathom.
The next year, Grady's book was condensed into a Sydney Pollack film, Three Days of the Condor, which compensated for cutting a lot of the explication by including a scene of the two prettiest people in the 1975 world, Robert Redford as the analyst and Faye Dunaway as an innocent bystander who helps him, having soft-focus and opaquely angled sex.
Audience Channel's version, a 10-hour miniseries, has restored some of the scope of the novel, even if it lacks the star wattage of the film. I'm not sure how many millions of Americans have been waiting with panting tongues to see Max Irons (The White Queen) and stage actress Katherine Cunningham naked, but I'm guessing it's in subfractional numbers.
Not that they don't do a perfectly good job as analyst Joe Turner and his swept-into-international-intrigue foil Kathy Hale. Watching Turner morph from a nerdish software developer into a steely killer, and Hale's comically cynical skepticism (You saved the world from biochemical terrorism last week, and now somebody wants to kill you for it? Surrrrre, and of course you work for the CIA), is tense, intriguing fun.
Todd Katzberg and Jason Smilovic, who wrote and produced Condor, both worked a trio of conspiratorial TV thrillers—Kidnapped, Bionic Woman and My Own Worst Enemy—that were suspenseful and well-plotted, even if perplexingly viewer-free, and they know their way around loon paranoia.
They've taken the broad outlines of the earlier versions of the story and jacked them into the 21st century. One of the enjoyable asides of Condor is tracking the changes in America's limbic dreads, or at least Hollywood's perceptions of them. In the book, the rogue CIA operators were overseeing drug importations from U.S. wars in Southeast Asia; in Pollack's film, a plot to seize Middle Eastern oil fields. Now the hobgoblin seems to be false-flag attacks implicating Muslim jihadists, although give the pace of Condor's startling plot twists, it's probably a mistake drawing conclusions from the three episodes the network made available for review.
What's certain is that Condor, though perhaps a little too conspiracy-laden for its own good and more than a bit heavy-handed in the portrayals of its villains, is a beguiling trip through the wilderness of mirrors that's modern intelligence work. You don't have to believe it; just enjoy it.
No caveats are necessary for HBO's excellent Succession, a lurid saga of the struggle for control of a dynastic media empire where a tyrannical patriarch (cough)Murdoch!(cough) has started to slip.
Brian Cox (Deadwood) plays Logan Roy (cough)Rupert!(cough), the crafty and vicious head of the world's fifth-largest media company. Motto: "Sometimes it is a big-dick competition." When he realizes that his drug-and-New-Age addled collection of children from a pack of various trophy wives will run the place into the ground, he abruptly postpones stepping down. Whoa! Turns out the kids were paying attention during all those warm family chats about backstabbing, corporate subversion, and general son-of-a-bitching.
Succession shares a lot of the corporate hard-ball sensibilities of Showtime's Billions, as well as its uncanny ability to make a thoroughly dislikeable set of perfidious and bloodthirsty characters completely entrancing.
Their numbers include Jeremy Strong (Masters Of Sex), as eldest and most ambitious son and heir apparent Kendall, who talks big but doesn't know how to pull a trigger; Kieren Culkin as his sybaritic and cynical brother Roman; Alan Ruck (The Whispers) as the bread-baking, desert-dwelling brother Connor; and Australian TV actress Sarah Snook as sister Shiv, who's more interested in politics than the family business. If I were the doddering Rupert—uhhh, Logan—I wouldn't trust a one of them to pour my Geritol.