Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Idiot Boxing, HBO edition: Veep, season 6 (2017); Silicon Valley, season 4 (2017)

Selena and her hapless hangers-on attempt to feed her ever-
growing ego more and more.
Veep, season 6 (2017)

Selina Meyer is coming off her close loss to win a proper presidential election, despite her every underhanded effort to maintain control of the office during the previous season. This season begins seeming as if Meyer will make moves aimed at running again for the next presidential election, it soon becomes clear that she has less support than her worst nightmares. Even her own massive ego and self-involvement are not enough to delude her into running again. Thus, season 6 of Veep becomes one focused on a sub-standard, formerly high-level politician attempting to forge her own post-career legacy.

The regular cast of staffers, advisors, and hangers-on returns in this season, clearly due to the fact that they are too inept or too socially awkward to find work anywhere else in the realm of Washington politics. And really, this show has really become about two things, one of them being the characters and their hilariously massive inadequacies and the other being the power-mad ego circus swirling around the federal government as depicted in the show. The latter was once a source of some half-decent commentary on certain dysfunctional elements of our national government. In recent seasons, however, the portrayal of the government of Veep has more or less become all but a spoof. It is a funny spoof, to be sure, but one will need to look elsewhere to find any truly thoughtful, biting, and useful criticism of our highest institutions.

This leaves us with the characters. Blessedly, there are still plenty of them who can carry the torch of hilarity. The master stroke of this season for me was having knucklehead uber bro Jonah Ryan actually be a member of Congress. Watching him stomp through the House of Representatives without an ounce of intelligence or sense of decorum was endlessly entertaining, made even more amusing by the fact that the world-weary Ben and ultra-dry number-cruncher Kent have hitched their wagons to Jonah's runaway, crazed and misguided warpath. Nearly all of the other usual players have their turns and share of memorably great lines, including leading lady Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Poster-Bro doorknob Jonah Ryan at his desk, "working" as
a new member of Congress. His moronic bull in a china shop
routine is arguably the funniest element of this season.
The only aspect that has bothered me a bit in these last two seasons is just how vicious and thoroughly heartless Selena Meyer has become. While she was always a self-interested narcissist, I don't recall her being as downright cruel in the earliest seasons of the show. Even though this show is clearly never meant to be taken seriously in any way, this season features more than a few gags and lines from Selena that, for my taste, were simply too brutal to be funny. They never overwhelmed the show or brought it completely down, but they were more noticeable than I recall from the first several seasons.

There was also a rather frantic pace to the final episode that was nothing less than completely dizzying. After an entire season spent on Selena working towards a plan for her presidential library, after realizing that another presidential run was laughably unrealistic, she decides to run again. This is presumably where the next season or two will be headed, which I truthfully find less exciting than what could have been. There was actually a moment in the third-to-last episode where it seemed as if the entire series may have been heading towards a potentially hilarious trainwreck ending, which I would have accepted wholeheartedly. Instead, we are left with a somewhat predictable return of the gang back into the ring of Washington politics. Yes, this is where the show made its bones, but it is also mostly familiar territory. I have no doubt that the insults and barbs will be as sharp and funny as ever next season, but my expectations for any novelty from this show are well-tempered.

The guys are back, including Big Head. And the balance is
once again restored by lessening Erlich's screen time and
bombast a few ticks.
Silcon Valley, season 4 (2017)

The small band of programmers at Pied Piper turn in arguably their best season yet.

Season 3 ended with another flameout of Pied Piper, just as they seemed on the cusp of exploding into the massive, world-changing force that Richard had always dreamed of. Instead, they are left a splintered group with an admired, though admittedly far smaller-scale, video chat application. After some juggling of ownership and one particularly nasty legal issue, the video app takes a major backseat to Richard's newest stroke of genius - creating a new Internet. This monumental endeavor forces Richard and the guys to go back and court several of the big local tech companies and industry titans, including their arch-nemesis Gavin Belson, among others.

Once again, the show brings us plenty of hilarity through the social awkwardness of the various people involved. Matt Ross makes a great return as deposed CEO of Hooli, Gavin Belson, whose grandiose narcissism takes a pretty serious hit. Seeing Belson brought relatively low has comic value all its own, and Ross just gets better and better as the self-important tech titan. The entire Pied Piper crew is still as spot on as ever, with Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Martin Starr, Zach Woods, and Kumail Nanjiani all in full command of their characters and playing them to comic perfection. The writing is perhaps as tight and consistent as any season thus far. I was especially pleased to see that they dialed back Erlich Bachman's screen time and bombast, which I felt had gotten a bit overwhelming in the last couple of seasons. This season, the exceptionally obnoxious Bachman was used in just the right amount.

Richard having one of several uncomfortable moments with
the annoyingly fortunate Keenan Feldspar. Feldspar becomes
a unique and sometimes uniting force for the Pied Piper crew.
There were also a couple of worthy additions of characters, as well as a slight increase in use of more tertiary ones. The most obvious addition is that of Keenan Feldspar, the annoyingly upbeat "Golden Child" of the week who has developed a cutting edge virtual reality system. Feldspar represents a type different from what we've seen on the show thus far - he's an almost obliviously lucky, effortlessly charismatic counterpoint to the grinders at Pied Piper, who can't seem to get out of their own way most of the time. The dynamic between infinitely chipper Feldspar and a neurotic like Richard or a dry Satanist like Gilfoyle is so much of what's made this show excellent.

This show has, now four season in, yet to let me down. This latest season was as good as any they've done, and it's not difficult to imagine the entire crew keeping it up for another season or two, at least. It really has become the show that I most anticipated from week to week, and the wait for next season is going to feel long, indeed.