LILLE, France — The world premiere of HBO’s “Succession” proved a fitting opening night series on Friday for a new-look Series Mania, the premier French drama series festival now backed forcefully by the French government and unspooling for the first time in the North-East French city of Lille.
Written by Oscar and WGA nominee Jesse Armstrong (“In the Loop”), whose “Ep. 1” premiered at Lille, kicks off in a pitch black as a man gets out of bed, stumbles through the dark and then urinates onto his lounge carpet. This is Logan Roy (Brian Cox) a self-made billionaire who has built up Waystar Royco into the fifth-biggest media and conglomerate in the world.
But now 80 – the first episode turns loosely on the “surprise” 80th birthday party organized by his wife (Hiam Abbass) – clearly infirm (Cox plays him with a haggard, haunted look suggesting he is as much concerned about intimations of mortality as the next deal on the table), he is now preparing his succession.
The most likely successor, heralded as an “Heir with Flair” on a “Time”-style magazine cover, is his eldest son by his second marriage, Kendell Roy (Jeremy Strong), who is ambitious but hugely insecure.
“Succession” is about a media family, creator Jesse Armstrong said onstage at Lyon. But it paints a larger picture, he added: “It’s a little bit about a dysfunctional family, and that happens; and it’s a little bit about dysfunctional politics, and how that happens.”
“It’s a real modern story. It’s about how wealth distances you from life,” added Cox.
That theme plays out across the whole of the first episode. Of Roy’s four children, three have run away from him: his eldest son Connor (Alan Ruck) to a farm in Mexico: daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook), into politics; another, Roman (Kieran Culkin) – who once worked at Waystar Royco, thinking up gee-whizz ideas for films such as one about a robots’ olympics – into drugs and dissolution.
“My man is a self-made man and he has children who are not self-made and have a sense of entitlement, which they don’t necessarily deserve,” Cox went on.
“Succession’s” first episode frames many ideas, such as the inhuman chasm between the filthy rich and normal folk. This is brought out in one memorable scene where the family ‘copters off to the countryside to play a game of baseball and Roman bets the 11-year-old son of the gardener at the field one million dollars that he can’t hit a home run.
Business sometimes comes down to who’s got the biggest dick, Logan tells Kendall as the latter tries to put through the key deal of Ep. 1, buying up a digital media company. The tragedy welling from Ep. 1 looks like that of a man who has spent his whole life trying to prove just that to the whole world, even his own children. He has lost them in the process.
“Succession” played to admiring applause at Lille. If in general new series dramas have proved anything, it is that audiences can react in a sophisticated fashion in their millions to sophisticated drama. “Succession” bore that out at Lille.
“What I liked about ‘Succession’ was the characters. They are nuanced. For example, the biggest ass-hole is meant to be Kendell but in the end he’s semi-sensitive,” said Oriane Wawrzyniak, from Lille, calling herself just a spectator.
Unspooling just two weeks after Canneseries, its rival on the Riviera, Series Mania set out at the opening ceremony the suggest the power of its own endowment at its opening ceremony.
Agilely m.c.ed by France’s Series Mania’s Alessandra Sublet and founder Laurence Herszberg, the gala’s stars cut symptomatically three ways. A long red carpet catwalk of French luminaries climaxed with the surprise appearance of Isabelle Adjani, hidden behind large dark glasses but still looking extraordinary after all these years as she posed for photographers with an air of punk chic.
Other stars, thanked by Herszberg in her opening speech, were French culture minister Françoise Nyssen and, sitting nearby in the audience, Martine Aubry, mayor of Lille, and Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region in France. Lille bid and won a government tender for support for a TV festival, aimed at turning it into one of the foremost in the world, and then wisely allied with to-date Paris-based Series Mania to launch this year’s first Lille-located event.
This forms part of a high-profile industrial reconversion from Bertrand and Aubry, aimed at turning Lille and France’s North-East, on the mining heart of France, into an advanced audiovisual service sector. It is typical of Series Mania that the biggest cheer of the night went not to stars but two show runners: “False Flag’s” co-creator Maria Feldman and Netflix’s “Narcos” co-creator Chris Brancato, president of Series Mania’s Official Competition jury.
“It’s said in America that we’re living in the age of peak TV. I think they leave one thing out in that we are living in an age of peak international TV,” Brancato told the Lille audience of some 2,000 spectators at its Nouveau Siecle theater..
Reviewing the last decade of trade flow in high-end series, he added: “America’s creative content came internationally and affected international culture. It stands to reason that international shows will come to America and now affect American culture.”
Just how many shows will really do that in any profound way remains to be seen. One recent candidate, Spain’s “La Casa de Papel,” announced last week by Netflix as its most-watched foreign series ever, will see creator Alex Pina talking at Lille next week. It may be series like these which provide the real series star impact which some local Lille press says Series Mania is still lacking.
Series Mania runs April 27 to May 5.