Over the past few years, Silicon Valley and Veep have become a reliable, fantastic one-two punch on HBO’s Sunday nights. Veep, by far, stole the evenings, delivering inspired and insane bursts of profane brilliance, and weaving in and out of the insanity of modern politics. But Silicon Valley just kept getting better and better as it went along, using its low-key charm and quiet sense of humor in incredible ways, and finding a great comic rhythm in its supporting cast.
And now, as Silicon Valley finishes its third season and Veep its fifth, something surprising happened: Silicon Valley outdid Veep handily this season, delivering more laughs, and bigger laughs, with a greater consistency than Veep for the first time since either show started.
Part of that, it must be said, has to be laid at the fact that Veep‘s showrunner, show creator Armando Iannucci, stepped down at the end season 4, handing the show to a new showrunner this season. And while new showrunner David Mandel found his way into the show’s wonderful comic timing as the season went along, there was a sense, even from the early going, that this wasn’t quite the Veep that I had fallen in love with over the years. The rapid-fire pace seemed slower; the razor-sharp political jabs seemed lacking; the characters seemed…meaner. Which, admittedly, is an odd comment to make about a show that’s so gloriously, viciously profane about every person, but there was a darker cruelty to some of the plotlines this season that seemed out of place with the show.
It didn’t help, either, that the show felt more plot-heavy this season. Veep worked best as a study in Meyer’s inefficacy as a vice-president, an empty placeholder who was capable of doing little more than symbolic gestures. And while moving her to the presidential position let the show get more into the intricacies of political maneuvering (which gave the season some of its best moments), it also ended up making the show slower and clunkier than it used to be. Yes, as David Mandel argued, maybe letting an American run the show allowed the politics to be more detailed…but maybe the lack of details allowed the show to be as funny as it was.
Did I still enjoy this season? Sure, on the whole. The supporting cast on Veep is too funny not to love at times, with Sam Richardson’s Richard Splett stealing every scene he was in. And as the show found its pace, it began to really move along…until a strange finale that felt like it was taking the show in a bizarre direction that didn’t fit at all. Will I watch next season? Sure…but I can’t help but feel that Veep may not entirely recover from the loss of Iannucci. Veep (Season 5): *** ½
And meanwhile, while Veep struggled, Silicon Valley became funnier than ever. Always more plot-heavy than Veep, Silicon Valley had worked in large part before thanks to its astute casting choices, most notably the brilliant comedic pairing of Martin Starr and Kumail Nanijani as the company’s coders. But given just how much was always going on in Silicon Valley – from the gleeful Google-skewering plotline at Hooli to Pied Piper’s efforts to make a name for itself, the show still struggled balancing story and comedy.
Not so this season. Rather than introducing new characters (with the welcome exception of Stephen Tobolowsky as a famous CEO), season 3 of the show narrowed its focus, letting existing characters take center stage, giving nominal lead Richard (Thomas Middleditch) more to do, and letting the characters’ banter become part of the story as much as anything else. More than that, it found a way to harness the gleefully anarchic comic energy of T.J. Miller in a way that served the story finally, letting him feel like more than a shoe-horned in element of the series. (Even with all of that being said, the show may never do better than simply letting Starr and Nanijani just bounce off of each other, no matter what else is going on; there’s no scene between the two of them that didn’t kill me this season.)
What’s more, the show made the plotting work, finding a way to make the struggles of a tech-heavy company not only comprehensible, but engaging for a wide audience. And even more important, the show managed to invest us in the company, making us want to see it succeed as much as the characters do – which means that every setback affects us just as much as them. And by doing that, the show has managed to humanize its characters, whether by letting us see some humility and shame at the core of Erlich Bachmann or making “Bighead” more than just a running joke.
It all plays to Mike Judge’s strengths – letting the jokes come as much from the characters as the situations – and allowing him to mix the broadly silly with the specific. And as funny as this season was, and the fact that it seems to get better as it goes, I’m fine with watching the boys of Pied Piper continue on this path for a long time. Silicon Valley (Season 3) / **** ½