By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
Review: Is HBO Unleashing The Best 2 Hours On Television?
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.