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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Is HBO Unleashing The Best 2 Hours On Television?

We don’t really think of program blocks anymore. Thanks to DVRs and other tools, we tend to watch in pieces.

I grew up on the “All In The Family”-“M*A*S*H*”-“Mary Tyler Moore”-_Bob Newhart” block (followed by the also-great “Carol Burnett Show”) in the 70s, back when networks could have a powerhouse Saturday night line-up.

Others will have different “Must See TV” preferences, but for me, the best 2 hours was Cosby, “Family Ties,” “Cheers,” and “Night Court,” followed by “Hill Street Blues,” though in Year 4 when the comedies came together… not the strongest “Hill Street” year.

And now, from HBO, the finest 2-hour block I can recall in recent years. It’s flipped from the norm, though this may not mean much, given the way we watch these days. An hour of “Game of Thrones,” followed by Mike Judge’s “Silicon Valley,” followed by the 3rd season of “Veep.”

For me, this is the best two hours of TV since that 1970’s block on CBS.

“Game of Thrones” remains “Game of Thrones.” It’s big, brassy pulp television. Could you fill the hour part of this great 2 hours with “True Detective” or “Boardwalk Empire” (which had its best season last season) or even “True Blood”? Sure. Pairing two great half-hour sitcoms is a tougher trick to pull off.

The only other comedy in the history of HBO on the level of “Veep” was “The Larry Sanders Show.” There are people who love “Entourage” or “Sex & The City” or “Eastbound & Down” or “Mr. Show.” But there is fun and then there is greatness.

I was a “Veep “guy from the first time I saw an episode. But this season of the show takes the next step. The manic edge, which is an Iannucci trademark, but didn’t fit Julia Louis-Dreyfus perfectly, has been filed off to be a perfect fit. There seem to be just as many storylines going on at the same time, but everything feels a little slower, a little clearer, a little cleaner.

Big storyline changes within the primary cast are really dangerous, potential caricatures instead of characters. But at the same time Iannucci and his writing team are opening up much broader comic potential, the show is going more classic.

For instance, old-school writers making fun of over-the-top blogs and bloggers is the stuff of potentially terrible junk TV. But just when you think it could be going someplace bad, the writers reel it in and tether it all to earthy reality.

Louis-Dreyfus, who took home the Emmy for this role for the last two years, is better than she’s been as Selena Meyer. You never see her working this season… she just is. And it’s not like she wasn’t already excellent. But while her instinct sometimes had her chasing the laugh in the last two seasons, she’s just playing the truth this year and she is perfection. In a weird way, it was as though she was, in the first two seasons, worried about being “The Mary” (the central character who wacky characters revolve around while she lets them get most of the laughs, named after Mary Tyler Moore) and has now embraced being in that role, while Iannucci and Co give her enough edgy material from that slot so she gets in as many razor-sharp lines as anyone.

The supporting cast remains impeccable. The staff, instead of being somewhat inert, defending their leader from ignoble irrelevance, get to be proactive for the first time.

They finally figure out where to take Jonah, besides being a target for brutal one-liners. Kevin Dunn and Gary Cole really shine with more prominent roles. Anna Chlumsky & Reid Scott get to compete more directly, but while both have to pretend not to be competing. And Emmy-winner Tony Hale is given a little more prominence this season.

The other half-hour is Mike Judge’s “Silicon Valley,” which walks a tightrope between very broad geek comedy and desert dryness. At first, the show feels uncomfortably familiar. We saw “competitive geeks in a house” in The Social Network. We’ve seen comedy versions of Steve Jobs and other Northern Californians going back as far as Serial in 1980 (probably earlier). We’ve done “lost in the bubble” before.

But as each episode comes to life before you, the show finds itself. By the time you get to Episode 3, opening with a Silicon Valley lawyer explaining a life-changing business deal as though it was ordering at a drive-thru and the glories of the toga party and the breathtaking work of Christopher Evan Welch as Peter Gregory and you realize you are watching as much of a forever comedy for the thinking set as you will find. It’s everything smart you felt about Mike Judge’s earlier stuff, but couldn’t quite verbalize.

You may pick up a theme here… as Mike Judge simply isn’t trying so hard to get the laugh. He is letting it come to him in a way that feels mature and complete and iconic.

Then Episode 4 comes along, mixing high and low, smart smart and stupid smart, the love and contempt for technology, and a glorious subtext-driven confrontation between the show’s two competing billionaires. The death of Christopher Evan Welch, who I do not really recognize from work before this show, becomes a devastating blow to what would have surely been the start of a great, long comedy career. All this and a great sidebar on the contemporary art scene to boot.

“Silicon Valley” is a GREAT show.

If you are wondering why I am not pulling great quotes and telling you about specific beats and character moments from these shows, it is because I don’t want you to have even the tiniest bit less pleasure of discovering these moments than I did. Truth is, I will probably laugh as hard or harder the second time around. But you can never have another first time.

Lots of great stuff on TV these days and on HBO over the years. But has there been a better two hours to just plop down in front of your TV and let 3 shows take you on a wild, diverse, challenging, smart, funny journey? Like I said… not in a few decades. Not for me, at least.

21 Responses to “Review: Is HBO Unleashing The Best 2 Hours On Television?”

  1. Jim K says:

    Well you’ve got me intrigued about “SV”. But no way you have me convinced that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” doesn’t qualify as greatness, ahead of “Veep” (which I like well enough). I suspect a few may agree with me on that one…

  2. Monco says:

    Extras is my favorite HBO comedy. I thought Eastbound & Down’s last season was shockingly great. The previous two seasons were mediocre. Never got into Veep but looking forward to Silicon Valley.

  3. Jim K says:

    Yeah, watched “Veep” last night. Quality, but not in the league of “Sanders” or “CYEnthusiasm”….and I dunno, I think “Sex and the City” at its height should not be so easily dismissed for a show that’s made no footprint at all.

    Still, looking forward to SV…

  4. moosenuts99 says:

    It’s time for everyone to be honest with themselves and admit that “George R. R. Tolkein’s, oops I meant Martin’s, Game of Groans” is the one of the worst-written shows on television.

    The old adage “Show, don’t tell” clearly does not mean a thing to this production’s writers room, as the exposition on this show is excruciating.

    Airing the same night as Mad Men further illuminates “Game of Groans’ “shortcomings and problems. But, you know, “GRATUITOUS NUDITY and BAD ZOMG CGI DRAGONS!!!”

  5. EtGuild2 says:

    Oh please. There’s less nudity than “Girls,” and less focus on CGI than “Agents of SHIELD.” One of the worst written shows on television? Not every fantasy series has to automatically be compared to Tolkien. If anything, GoT is more like “House of Cards.”

  6. Jim K says:

    I forgot about Girls, lol…Girls is safely ahead of Veep in HBO half-hour greatness as well…

  7. leahnz says:

    threads like this remind me how US-centric the hotblog tends to be, maybe the shows mentioned are the best on american TV? not so much on mine.

    (having said that i do agree with veep, iannucci is a sick, twisted bastard wordsmith, my cup of tea) in addition to ‘veep’ the other best shows on my cable tv are (crime) ‘wallander’ (branagh one), ‘silent witness’, ‘taggart’ and ‘top of the lake’ (though sadly wallander, taggart and TOTL are finished for the season/or over now; ‘true detective’ was so cliché and overhyped – when whatshisface asks, “have you ever seen anything like this before?” my thought was “yes, that exact line in ‘Se7en’, not to mention numerous other puerile shows that have to poke my eye out with nipples every 7 minutes, and in the case of TD dead or alive, hey it makes no difference), then there’s the brilliant ‘orphan black’, ‘derek, ‘parks n rec’… i’m derping on others —

    i want to see ‘girls’ which is starting here, and i’m bored stiff now with ‘tits with the chance of dragons’ (what the cast apparently jokingly calls ‘game of thrones’… on that subject, dear ‘home-of-the-persistent-male-gaze’ HBO, reality check: in life men are naked every bit as often and in the same circumstances as women, if you’re going to do gratuitous nudity don’t be insecure! throw off your silly shackles, let your men be natural humans and not clothed/covered up vessels there to objectify boobies for only half of your audience! be original, like you claim to be)

  8. Hallick says:

    “threads like this remind me how US-centric the hotblog tends to be, maybe the shows mentioned are the best on american TV? not so much on mine.”

    Jeez leah, what’s he supposed do exactly? It’s an American blog post from somebody watching TV in America. You gotta give it to him that he’s kind of stuck with this frame of reference naturally, right? It’s like complaining that a weatherman in Miami never talks about the low pressure fronts in Helsinki.

  9. Hallick says:

    “It’s time for everyone to be honest with themselves and admit that “George R. R. Tolkein’s, oops I meant Martin’s, Game of Groans” is the one of the worst-written shows on television.”

    Says the person who wrote moosenuts99.

  10. leahnz says:

    “Jeez leah, what’s he supposed do exactly? It’s an American blog post from somebody watching TV in America. You gotta give it to him that he’s kind of stuck with this frame of reference naturally, right? It’s like complaining that a weatherman in Miami never talks about the low pressure fronts in Helsinki.”

    haha this is entirely true hallick — my comment only works from the perspective of coming across the headline “is HBO unleashing the best two hours on television?”, reading what the article says is the best and thinking, fuck no, those aren’t the best shows, there’s way better stuff on cable! but point taken. (i still find it bizarre that the seemingly voluminous american cable channels don’t show bitchin’ programmes like ‘orphan black’, ‘TOTL’, ‘silent witness’ etc, but i’m totally willing to accept that’s true — kind of a bummer for you guys though, it seems like you’re missing out on a lot of the best stuff just because it’s not murican. we get all the US stuff plus a shitload of great stuff from elsewhere.)

  11. Arisp says:

    Veep is the best written comedy on tv by 100000 miles. It’s brilliant.

  12. Hcat says:

    Both orphan black and top played here on cable to great acclaim, tons of articles written about them and relatively small viewership (though I am sure they are being repeated constantly on their respective channels).

  13. moosenuts99 says:

    “Not every fantasy series has to automatically be compared to Tolkien.”

    True. But, if Martin didn’t want the comparison, he could’ve dropped the “R.R.” from his name, or actually used the name instead of the initials.

    Sorry, he’s invited the comparison.

    “Says the person who wrote moosenuts99.”
    Yes. My screen name should be held to the same standards as a HBO series. Thankfully, my screen name comes with a lot less pointless exposition.

  14. Hcat says:

    Leah, I’m curious how many cable channels you get, here with the 150 channels everything is so fragmented channels seem to exist to show 2-3 hours of original programming a week.

  15. Hallick says:

    “Yes. My screen name should be held to the same standards as a HBO series.”

    No. Just to the standards of the post connected to it.

  16. leahnz says:

    hcat i think our cable/satellite provider has about 100 channels if you subscribe to the full package, but you can tailor it to your needs (movies, sports, etc) – and then there’s a bunch of what i guess you’d call ‘pay per view’ channels on top of that, which get movies a tad before or at the same time as DVD release; the internet-based ‘video on demand’ thing like your Netflix is only just starting here and everything is expensive as fuck, we just don’t have enough people (pity sheep don’t watch telly) so we pay through the nose for everything, including the internet. it blows.
    having said that we get new programming pretty quickly now so we’re usually fairly up to date, sometimes just weeks (or even hours, which they like to trumpet to the high hills) behind the country of origin screening of the shows. the good thing about it is the channels are like an aggregate from all over the world, so we get a wide variety of shows. the most hilarious channels for me are the german, chinese and hindi ones, you just haven’t lived until you’ve watch the german parliament in session, or hindu game shows.

    “Both orphan black and top played here on cable to great acclaim, tons of articles written about them and relatively small viewership (though I am sure they are being repeated constantly on their respective channels).”

    well that’s interesting, so they may be available but just don’t attract much of an audience, and then no WOM to build on. that’s probably not unusual. (i have no idea what viewership is for such shows here, numbers and ratings, i’d imagine ‘top of the lake’ did well since it was made/set here and campion is a homegirl…ha except for maybe the locals in otago who must have cringed a bit at all the rapey-meth-dealing-pedo-misogynist-corruptcop-backwoods-hick culture portrayed so agonisingly well in their stomping ground, “beneath this glassy surface a world of gliding monsters”, yowza

  17. AdamL says:

    If you really wanted to watch the best 2 hours on television you’d watch The Good Wife on CBS at 9 then switch over to HBO at 10 (although not this week since some stupid music thing is on.)

    To suggest Thrones – or any drama on TV right now actually – is better than The Good Wife this season is to admit you’re not watching The Good Wife.

  18. movieman says:

    Loved the premiere episode of “Silicon Valley”! Like the best movies (and the best television), it’s permeated with the authorial stamp of its creator, Mike Judge. On the basis of the pilot, “SV” has the makings of another HBO classic.

    As a moderate “GOT” fan, I was disappointed in last bite’s episode.
    Is it me, or was it really the single worst directed ep. in the history of the series? The composition of shots and the cutting within scenes were inept, and even some of the performances seemed off (e.g., for the first time Nikolaj Coster-Waldau seemed to be struggling w/ his accent).

  19. christian says:

    People have to justify endless hours spent staring a tv screen, so every show has to be the greatest thing in the history of things. GOT is trash D&D for middle brow America.

  20. movieman says:

    Reluctantly watched the pilot of AMC’s “Turn” despite the mediocre reviews and–dammit–was impressed enough to keep watching. I may be hooked.
    Besides the sheer novelty factor (the Revolutionary War!), last nite’s premiere was exceedingly well-done in nearly every respect, in typical AMC fashion.
    Interestingly, the 90-minute opener was helmed by Rupert “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” Wyatt.
    Was relieved to see Jamie Bell play a sympathetic role again after the sick fuck he so convincingly and frighteningly portrayed in “Nymphomaniac 2,” lol.

  21. Monco says:

    Movieman, I thought the last GoT was off too. It was directed by D.B Wiess who to my knowledge has never directed anything before. He should stick to writing the series. But I was wondering if it was just me since crtics have seemed to like it. I made the mistake of reading the books which have ruined the show for me. Say what you want about the “pulp trash” aspect of it but the books are pretty great. So much better than the show. But I realize that is how it usually is when comparing books with their filmed counterparts.

    Also agree with christian, the socia media induced every show is the “best ever!” trend is the most annoying thing to me about pop culture at the moment. Just my opinion though.

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