“Veep” and “Silicon Valley”: Going Out on Top (or At Least Tied)

Veep4

The fourth season of Veep clattered to a halt Sunday night, ending indecisively as the election contest between sitting president Selina Meyer and challenger Bill O’Brien culminated in a rare electoral college tie. The finale, which I discussed with Devin Mitchell and Kevin Werner on the M&M Report, had much of the outstanding previous episode’s balletic rhythm but fewer punchlines, instead pivoting into rare dramatic territory for this typically farcical series.

It was a banner season for the absurd political satire, in which the plot threatened to render the show’s title irrelevant. Selina Meyer proved to be a far more effective president than anyone could have anticipated, which probably says more about the demands of the job than about her skills. The season’s true conflict came from the balancing act of running an administration and planting seeds for a future one. The data leaks, the wrangling around the running mate choice, the loss of key staffers like Dan and Amy – these issues might not have happened if the job of being president didn’t have to compete with the job of trying to stay president. As usual, Selina and her staff managed these crises with a mixture of cynicism, ineptitude and profanity, three ingredients that make for a potent comedy recipe.

Even as Selina’s presidency stretched the show’s core premise near to a breaking point, and the ever-expanding roster of amusing characters threatened to do everyone in the cast a disservice, the show stayed the course by playing with the structure of the season and individual episodes. More major moments happened offscreen than in any previous Veep season, never more noticeably than in the landmark episode “Testimony,” which played out entirely as a series of C-SPAN hearings in which the sweat on our characters’ brows becomes increasingly profuse. That episode was brilliant not only because it broke from the show’s typical rhythms and introduced the infinite glories of the Jonad Files. It showcased the show’s ideas about the hollowness and absurdity of American political theater as purely and succinctly as they’ve ever been on the show.

It was a season of inspired pairings both in and out of the White House. Dan and Amy proved a formidable if ragtag team of lobbyists after the former was forced out of 1600 Penn, and the latter showed herself out in a rage spiral worthy of, at the very least, an Emmy nomination for the reliably wonderful Anna Chlumsky. Selina and her daughter Catherine provided the series with occasional bursts of pathos like their finale respite in the hotel room (“Was it only twenty minutes? It always feels longer with Catherine!”), but the teenager’s bemusement at Selina’s antics became tragic when trouble in the White House cost her an engagement to a much older lobbyist – nay, consultant.

But by far the season’s best duo was Jonah and Richard, who were dynamite pretty much anytime they appeared onscreen together. Jonah’s aggressive awfulness, undercut as it was by the sexual assaults he endured throughout the first half of the season in an underdeveloped subplot, lent Richard’s oblivious naivete even greater weight. Richard, played with gleeful charm by Sam Richardson, is one of those inspired sitcom characters who started as a one-off until the crew saw him in action and realized that he could be a worthwhile member of the ensemble. He’s just one example of many this season of a creative team at the top of its game – quite unlike the characters who are the product of that creativity.

***

Silicon Valley

With few exceptions, the characters on Veep aren’t nearly as good at their jobs as they are at pretending they are. The show’s timeslot partner Silicon Valley is the opposite, or at least complementary: its characters are great at grunt work, but selling themselves is another matter entirely. In “Two Days of the Condor,” the show’s surprisingly tense second season finale, the Pied Piper came this close to losing their entire company to a Google-esque tech conglomerate, and then they came this close to deleting their entire company because they thought they would otherwise lose to a Google-esque tech conglomerate.

And then their CEO got fired.

Though some were concerned that Silicon Valley would be the successor to the low-stakes bro-ventures of HBO’s recently revived Entourage, Mike Judge’s comedy proved in its sophomore year to be the opposite, with victory constantly leaping just out of reach for the meek Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his misfit colleagues at the fledgling startup. The show is less about the formation of a successful tech startup in the American West than it is about the conscious attempt at that formation without the corruption and hollowness that comes with it (and plagues the characters on Veep).

As cynical as Veep is about the hype machine, Silicon Valley is optimistic about what that hype machine can cover up. Its characters suffer while their cruel, rich authority figures twiddle their thumbs and reap their profits. Starting a business can be a soul-sucking exercise, and this season didn’t shy away from the mundane realities of contract negotiations, legal setbacks and creative differences. (It almost felt, as many shows about process often do, like it was reflecting the anxieties of a television creator who’d had his modest vision crushed a time or two, as Judge has.)

That’s not to say that Silicon Valley was a bummer this season, though. By contrast, it was reliably hysterical, emulating Veep in its commitment to playing to its performers’ strengths. T.J. Miller’s lovable douche-bro Erlich Bachmann became increasingly more complicated and tragic as the season went on, and his return into the coding trenches in the finale was a reminder that the character is more than the sum of his slick words and drug habits. Martin Starr and Kumail Nunjiani provided a more combative rejoinder to Jonah and Richard on Veep, with Gilfoyle and Dinesh trading barbs and put-downs even as they recognized each other’s strengths and value. The ever-lovable Zach Woods took the meek oddball Jared to new and astonishing heights of eccentricity.

The absence of the late Christopher Evan Welch as Peter Gregory was keenly felt. But the show wisely used the character’s departure as an opportunity to widen its perspective, introducing a female CEO as Gregory’s replacement and finding more room for the marginalized women of last season to come into their own. Monica’s smoking habit and support of the team from the outside was a welcome path for her character, and the introduction of the prodigy coder Carla, complete with earnest casual sexism from Jared, suggested strides towards the gender parity that’s nowhere near reality in the actual Silicon Valley. The show struck a fine balance, much improved over last season, between portraying the gender gap and acknowledging different gender perspectives. And there were no romantic stories, despite the hint at a Richard-Monica flirtation in the season one finale.

Each episode of Silicon Valley season two, even the ones with somber codas, ended on a jaunty musical selection, ranging from Run the Jewels to ZZ Top. The creative team was sending a message – we know what we’re doing even when our characters don’t. The same could be said for Veep. It’s rare to find two comedies operating at such high levels on the same night, on the same network. (Make that three – Last Week Tonight is no slouch either.)

If only HBO could keep these shows running on a loop all year long. That’s “continuity without change” I can believe in.

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