Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Idiot Boxing, HBO Edition: Silicon Valley season 3; Veep season 5; Game of Thrones season 6

It's semi-ridiculous how many great shows HBO has running these days. Just a few weeks ago marked the end of arguably their strongest set of concurrently running programs. These are some of the only shows that I make a point to watch as quickly as I am able, including trying to catch at least one during its initial airing (a rarity for me these days).

Here are the three primary shows of the channel's Spring offerings (and I'm not even including Last Week Tonight, which is equally brilliant).

The fellas, walking into their swank new offices after their
new CEO rolls out his opulent approach to work amenities.
Silicon Valley, season 3

The second season left us with the bittersweet victory that Richard and Pied Piper experience by winning their arbitration case against Gavin Belson. Richard, however, is removed as CEO of his own company, leaving the head chair empty.

The third season sees plenty of twists and turns through the treacherous roadways towards commercial success for a budding tech startup company. Pied Piper gets a new, highly experience and successful CEO, Jack Barker, who seems more interested in pure profit rather than Richard's more idealistic views of the possibilities of his compression program. The conflict between Barker and Richard makes up the first third of the season, with the remaining two-thirds comprising the fallout and attempts by the Pied Piper team to stay financially afloat long enough to get the platform completed and out to the public before Hooli or other programmers beat them to it.

This season lived right up to the standard set by the first two seasons. It's hilarious, with just enough drama to keep the larger story interesting. I did find Ehrlich a bit more annoying than usual. In a few episodes, they really exaggerated just how obnoxious and self-involved he is, to the point that I no longer found him amusing as much I just wanted someone to punch his lights out.

My annoyance with Ehrlich aside, there was still plenty of the great trademark lampooning and satirical takes of tech world, corporate entities, and the personalities who run them. Gavin Belson's megalomania reaches new heights, even as his numerous poor decisions and underhanded tactics start coming to light. Jack Barker's one-percenter distractions like his horse's mating while his genius CTO is pleading a compelling case about marketing strategy are fantastic. And of course, the back and forth between Dinesh and Gilfoyle are always gold.

I have every confidence that, as long as the primary creators like Mike Judge are involved with this show, it will be consistently excellent. It only remains to be seen whether they avoid having the show drag on too long, or if they show the good sense to complete the story arc they set out on from the beginning and call it a day at the right time.

The Commander-in-Chief, non-elect, with her none-too-bright
staff (except for VP Tom James, on the left - the show-
runners probably weren't going to have Hugh Laurie play
a doorknob).
Veep, season 5

Things got a bit darker this season, and the story arc was structured a bit differently, but season 5 of Veep still delivered, even if I didn't find it quite as consistently funny as previous seasons.

This season tells the painfully protracted story of an election recount and political maneuvering following the virtual tie for the presidential seat at the end of season 4. The main arc follows Selena Meyers's inept team pulling out every trick they can devise to ensure that she is voted in as president. The typically vicious insults still fly in abundance, with plenty of them hitting their comedic marks, as the Meyers team bungles its way from one misstep to another. Probably the best sub-plot is the attempt to get the ever-arrogant and ever-oblivious Jonah elected as a Congressman so that he can place a vote for Selena that will put her over the top in a House election. Watching Jonah's crew run damage control after his many ridiculous gaffs is arguably the best part of this season.

Things did take an unusually dark turn in episode 4, when Selena's mother dies. While still presented in a comic light, much of the humor in this episode was far darker than anything seen previously in this series. Perhaps it was this episode and my familiarity with the entire series, but I did feel that there weren't quite as many solid laughs in this season. I still greatly enjoyed it, and I'll gladly tune in for the next season, but I wonder if Veep is coming close to running its course.

Think Cersei was cowed after her walk of shame at the end of
season 5? Think again.
Game of Thrones, season 6 

Arguably the best season since the third.

At the point, the show has surpassed events described in author George R.R. Martin's series of novels. While frustrating to many fans, this is actually a boon for the show-runners, who have free rein to continue telling the story as they see fit. This season proved that they are making the most of that freedom.

There are likely some readers here who are yet to watch any or all of the episodes, so I will leave out specific details. Suffice it to say that, for the first time in several seasons, the story progresses with an urgency that we haven't seen in a few seasons. Various forces begin to converge, several prominent characters are killed (shocking, I know), and we start to get a clearer picture of exactly where things are heading when it comes to who will eventually win the Iron Throne. This season has more than a few of the stunning turns and surprises which have been hallmarks of the best episodes, and the episode The Door ended with one of the most powerful emotional impacts of anything I've ever seen in a movie or TV show (I'm actually getting choked up writing about it right now, two months after the episode aired).

Not that the prior three seasons weren't strong, but I grew weary of the graphic sadism which had become a regular feature of the show. Whether due to fan reaction similar to mine or some other inspiration, this season's writers chose to do without the semi-regular rapes, tortures, and other brutally violent scenes which had become nothing short of torture-porn. I was glad to see the change, which allowed me to enjoy this season all the more.

In a show this massive, there will always be a nit or two to pick. In my case, the Sand Snakes in Dorne still come off as awkward in terms of dialogue and acting; fortunately, they are not a large part of this season. And one or two other characters and minor plot-lines can be quibbled over. But in a story this epic in scale, having only a few minor gripes are the very best that one can hope for. I'm very much excited for next season, and this season actually inspired my mostly non-fantasy reader wife to go back and re-read Martin's novels. That's as strong an endorsement a I can deliver.