'Veep' and 'Silicon Valley': TV Review
HBO's comedy double threat returns even stronger and funnier than before.
HBO rolls into your living rooms — and, modern update, other places you might have access to your phone or tablet — tonight in an hour of impressive comedy, as Veep and Silicon Valley return, triumphantly.
Veep enters its fourth season firmly established as one of television's best comedies, and then immediately does what seems impossible: It delivers its most thoroughly assured, hilarious and brilliantly written and acted episodes.
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At some point in the first four episodes, it will probably hit you: Armando Iannucci and his writers and cast are in peak form, crafting some of the best and most delightful scenes and character interactions you'll likely see from a comedy ensemble. It begins to look seamless and easy — that's the tell on greatness — as the walking-and-talking scenes roll onward through the White House that President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) occupies for the next eight months, collecting and then tossing aside various characters as the searing banter whips viciously and hilariously back and forth.
Rewind. Rewatch. It's that good.
With Meyer as president, Veep has upped its game, just as it has upped the stakes (and mistakes) that Meyer and her staff must overcome. Because Iannucci mastered the art of political ball-squeezing (and yes, you can actually get a visual of that in these upcoming episodes) in his British series The Thick of It, the pacing and exactitude of the challenges in Veep were spot-on from the start. But what Meyer faced as vice president — mostly indignity and a series of frustratingly funny so-close-to-power moments — are now surpassed by the crushing and endless challenges of being president, where each gaffe is magnified by its impact on national and international concerns. In short, this makes Veep the perfect cauldron for the writers to create a series that's almost breakneck in its rush to whack-a-mole problems for the Meyer administration — and that frantic pace creates a near endless supply of comic possibility.
And yes, it does bring up the question of how Veep can ever go back to how it was — it can't. The series can draw out the eight-month Meyer term if it wants to, over a number of episodes, but the framework is just too rich not to have Meyer eventually win the election and remain in office. These early episodes of season four are distinct proof that being POTUS just has too much potential to squander.
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If you saw any of the early promos for this season, with Louis-Dreyfus laughing uproariously as she's introduced as the president, you know the fit is perfect. (In fact, the scenes where that bit were taken from are excellent in conveying how crazy it all feels for Meyer and how her elevation changes everyone around her, from her staff to her rivals.)
If Louis-Dreyfus weren't already the frontrunner in the lead comedy actress category at the Emmys, the four episodes sent to critics absolutely cement it. Who is going to top this performance? Louis-Dreyfus is a joy to watch in every scene, either screaming at her staff, having to dig out of numerous awkward situations or blistering through every line she's given: "I could not be more popular if I gave both kidneys to some sick kid." Or, about to face the joint chiefs of staff: "I'm used to dealing with angry, aggressive, dysfunctional men — i.e., men."
What Veep does particularly well this season is dole out lines for everybody. The cast is even growing this year, as the superb Sam Richardson comes on full-time as Richard, the assistant to Amy (Anna Chlumsky), whose passion for the job is only overshadowed by his ability to mess up the job; Diedrich Bader as Bill Ericsson, the campaign manager for one of Meyer's rivals; Patton Oswalt, who recurs as the chief of staff for Vice President Doyle — not to mention Hugh Laurie, who will arrive later in the season. But the writers impressively find material for everybody, and none of the actors seems out of orbit.
Amy: "I'm almost crying. I didn't know that I could almost do that."
Dan (Reid Scott): "Mike trying to be healthy — it's like a potato trying to whistle."
Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) "I've got a sixth sense. And a seventh when I need it."
Ericsson: "I just wanted to say a friendly hello in an unfriendly way."
Gary (Tony Hale): "Ma'am, cheese is on its way. Here's an interim banana."
Jonah (Timothy Simons): "I f—ing hate Kent. I'm going to wipe that neutral expression off his face."
On and on it goes — this all in addition to great lines falling from Louis-Dreyfus' lips in an endless stream: "We're going to have to find the money somewhere. Just end high school in the ninth grade or something."
What's most heartening for fans of this gem is that everything you've come to love is essentially still in place. Jonah is still Jonah; Mike (Matt Walsh) still goes through the day with peaks and valleys of temporary happiness and crushing panic; Ben (Kevin Dunn) still sardonically herds the group out of their endless troubles, etc.
The difference this season is that — almost impossibly (unless you've seen The Thick of It) — the pace is quickened and the stakes are raised for every character. Life in the West Wing is a series of forest fires and a teaspoon of water with a ticking clock and a frantic, yelling voice somewhere in your ear.
It's a beautiful din. Veep in overdrive.
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Silicon Valley, the Mike Judge comedy that skewers technology and the Bay Area "cradle of innovation" that the show derives its name from, is also impressively upgraded after a stellar first season.
The show wastes no time in addressing the real-life loss of actor Christopher Evan Welch, who played the eccentric genius Peter Gregory. Gregory was going to fund the Pied Piper startup, whose lightbulb moment was creating better compression technology for the "data-geddon" that faces users in short order. The series manages to make the death of Gregory funny while simultaneously honoring Welch in the process (so hats off to Judge and co-executive producer and director Alec Berg for that). The series deftly worked around the tragic loss of Welch last season but needed to address the character's situation this time around.
It provided an opportunity for the show to address one of its glaring omissions from the first season, which was the inclusion of more women in the show to illustrate their plight in the tech world. The producers have admitted that it was a missed opportunity for a lot of relevant storylines (and subsequent humor), so the first step was replacing the Gregory character with a powerful woman from the investment firm, Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer), who is as hilariously bad at interpersonal relationships and social encounters as Gregory. But like Gregory, she's super-effective and confident at what she does, which comes in handy now that the whole world wants to fund Pied Piper, with its motley collection of Richard (Thomas Middleditch), the nervous uber-geek who came up with the compression algorithm that trumps everybody else's; Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), the code pros and bickering friends; Jared (Zach Woods), the relentlessly and hilariously milquetoast numbers-cruncher they poached from rival Hooli; and Erlich (T.J. Miller), the delightfully vile blowhard whose house, aka Hacker Hostel, in Palo Alto is the tech incubator where everybody lives (a fact that gives Erlich 10 percent).
Also returning is Monica (Amanda Crew), who played a pivotal role in season one as Peter Gregory's head of operations and the person who pushed hardest for Richard's compression innovation to be funded. Though she was always portrayed by Silicon Valley as smart and direct, the second season finds her role heightened a bit, juggling Laurie's lack of social skills and trying to keep Richard and Pied Piper from being eaten up and spit out not only by VCs but also Gavin Belson (the wonderful Matt Ross), head of tech giant Hooli, which is trying to either steal Richard's compression technology or beat him to market by any means necessary. It's a position that lets Crew show off more of Amanda's smarts by advising the guys on the side, plus mine her character for more comedy as she deals with Laurie.
Whether Silicon Valley brings in another female character as, say, a code warrior, remains to be seen — only three episodes were sent to critics.
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Regardless, Silicon Valley comes out of the gates as strong as its remarkable freshman season, skewering people, places, ideas and the pomposity of the entire tech world. The series has an affinity, particularly through the Erlich character, for cock-and-balls jokes, top-shelf nerd riffs and an uncanny ability to send up ridiculous tech terminology and corporate speak. (Last season's Silicon Valley, on at least two occasions, made high art out of the lowest form of comedy — the dick joke — so Judge and his writers get the benefit of the doubt on all groin-based humor.)
Season two is remarkably tight and bright about the race to get funded and the weird pitfalls of both being wooed heavily and then faltering in second-round funding, proving that there's an endless and often fascinating subculture to fish in. The writers get to employ "negging" to maximum effect here, plus let the rest of the world in on "brain raping" and other pitfalls of competition in a field that likes to tout how it's helping make the world a better place.
"Your logo looks like a sideways vagina. I find that racist," Erlich says as he counters VC "negging" with his own well-timed and often weird counter-attack. "Your muffins smell like shit. So do your ideas. And one of you is the least attractive person I've ever seen."
The strategy works.
"There is a linear correlation between how intolerable I was and the height evaluation" of Pied Piper, Erlich boasts.
But of course, nothing is easy for this geek squad. A bit of karma kicks in, and that spawns a lot of bad decision-making. But Silicon Valley is always there, skewer in hand, to make fun of fictional (and sometimes real) players in the tech industry — even at Peter Gregory's wake. (In one of the many fine jokes from that scene, Gavin Belson remembers their time as rivals: "We talked, as old friends do. He asked me about Jackson Hole. I asked him about Pilates.")
The beauty of Silicon Valley is that nothing is sacred, and the targets are vast, assuring plenty of material from episode to episode (the three sent were bursting with creative and searing humor). "I don't know about you people," Belson tells his Hooli employees in a motivational speech meant to top Pied Piper, "but I don't want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place, better than we do."
Oh, Silicon Valley, welcome back.