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‘Veep’ & ‘Silicon Valley’ Throw Out Their Formulas, Only One Succeeds

With the recent departure of Girls, HBO has lost its longest-running regularly scheduled (read: not Curb or The Comeback) half-hour program. Though that series differed vastly from Veep and Silicon Valley, its absence has still left these as the new veteran comedies of the network. That space has been filled by wonderful shows, from Insecure to Vice Principals, not to mention the 2016’s best show, High Maintenance. Yet comedy is a difficult genre to maintain over the years, given how reliant it can be on following a general order that can grow stale over time. So as these two sitcoms have returned, both have shaken loose from their former restraints. One series succeeds where the other tailspins, and their sensibilities (and settings) give every indication as to why.

To be fair, Veep is two years ahead of Silicon Valley. In its own fourth season it was near the height of its powers, culminating with the all-time classic “Testimony”. And the dip in quality isn’t quite new; after creator Armando Iannuci left after that year. Season five, though, maintained at least the frenzied mania of previous years as it dealt with the fallout of an historic election. The jokes weren’t quite as crisp and the vulgarities a bit less creative, but the spine of the show felt relatively in tact. It felt more like an off year than a collapse.

The first three episodes of Veep’s sixth season are much more deeply troubling. Now that Selina Meyer has left political office, the cast has been strewn about the landscape. Only Jonah, in a bit of underutilized beautiful irony, currently sits in elected office. Some still work as advisors, others are on TV, and a few still swirl around the ruinous orbit of Selina. Previously, some characters had already splintered off such as Dan going to work for a lobbying firm. Amy quit, dramatically, in one of season four’s best moments. So the world of Veep is no stranger to shake-ups.

However, what those previous years had that this one sorely lacks is a central narrative which all of the others can swirl around. Often that seed of an idea grew and changed throughout the season, but the fanatic pull of Washington yanked everyone towards a center at one point or another. Here, there are rumblings about Selina’s library, but that only concerns a few of the people involved. It’s admirable, to an extent, that the show doesn’t contrive some reason for everyone to be in the same place at the same time. But that fuel, of D.C. intrigue morphed into existentially meaningless excess, means so much less when sprawled across so many divergent paths. The writers of Veep forced themselves down a new path with the conclusion of season five, and good on them for sticking to that narrative shift. But when the plot doesn’t command, like it used to, everything is given over to the quality of the humor on a joke-by-joke basis. And that meter has fallen most precipitously of all.

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Silicon Valley, on the entire other end of the spectrum, still has enough ability to derive humor from line readings and character relationships that it hypothetically doesn’t have to blow up the status quo. It’s admirable that rather than let it sink into that comfortable groove, the season has already moved nearly every character away from the position they held at the end of last year. This all stems from Richard’s decision to leave the company he created, Pied Piper. By the end of the premiere, that IP has become PiperChat, led by CEO Dinesh and Richard is off trying to build a new internet. It shouldn’t come as a spoiler to say that these threads look drastically different even two episodes later.

That isn’t quite shocking because Silicon Valley is a show that has always moved at a dramatic pace for a sitcom. It rarely lingers in any one space for too long, partially because it knows the central sources of humor can follow wherever the story takes these characters. As long as Gilfoyle can mock Dinesh, as long as Jian-Yang can exact revenge on Bachman, as long as Jared can coo horrifically hilarious one-liners about his past experiences, it doesn’t really matter what the company is called or who is running it. At least that’s true on the very surface.

This comes down to the central difference between two series that are superficially similar. Both Veep and Silicon Valley are satires of centralized powers in modern America. Both have a gift for curses; Veep’s were more creative, but Valley crystalized the beauty of “this guy fucks”. And, on an even more basic level, both are pure comedies on a network that now finds itself more typically drawn to the genre Matt Zoller Seitz has named “Comedy in Theory”. Even more than this, they are largely serialized comedies, a form that never really grabbed much a widespread foothold. Unlike most sitcoms, which reset or only carry over germs of ideas, Veep and Silicon Valley are primarily about their continuous plot, gaining energy from the growing snowball of events and consequence.

How they treat that snowball is where the shows differ most, and they do so by drawing on their source of satire. When the events of Veep are run through various mills – bureaucracy, the media, petty jealousies – they come out the other side largely leaving things in tact. This is, presumably, the main feature (or, for many, the bug) of Washington. These power structures exist primarily to support themselves. This is in part to benefit the citizen, so the country can run smoothly through transitions of power. But it also speaks to the difficulty of exacting actual change when the system is built almost entirely to prevent it. That stasis is where Veep has thrived. The thrill of hustling through the show’s plot wasn’t “where will this lead” as much as it was “how will everything get swallowed back up by square one”.

None of this is to say that Veep shouldn’t attempt change. Moving Selina from Vice President to POTUS was a move that worked beautifully, elaborating that core conceit rather than distracting from it. But now that the snowball is largely absent from the show, given that the show is largely absent from Washington, that ethos is more difficult to maintain. Suddenly this has gone from being a show about stasis to one about evolution (or devolution, depending on the character). That focus on adjustment ironically saps the shows of its original purpose and energy. The series was so beautifully chaotic because people vied for power, but not for ideas. The tone was sharp because it married that cacophony to an underlying cynicism that the next leader wouldn’t change things much from the current one. Moving away from that clamor begs the question of what, exactly, the show is doing anymore.

Silicon Valley is drawing from the opposite coast and a parallel identity. The cynicism is certainly still there, baked into Mike Judge’s portrait of tech lords throwing out empty phrases about “helping the world”. But Richard has always leavened that; he’s less concerned with false righteousness than authentic advancement. He speaks less in platitudes than in ambition. And even those like Gavin Belson, the head of Google stand-in Hooli, who are more obsessed with that image than with progressiveness aren’t set in stone. Silicon Valley is a place of constant, churning modification. Some certainly maintain power for long stretches, your Zuckerbergs, your Musks. But jobs always appear to be at stake for many; just look at the recent hullaballoo around Uber a company so seeped into culture it’s become a new shorthand for “taxi”.

So as the tech field goes, so goes Silicon Valley itself, churning into those uncharted waters. This shake-up is really just the latest of many. It may be the most seismic shift, given how nearly every character is affected one way or another. But start-ups flop and dot com bubbles burst; this is just how the landscape functions and has for decades. If Washington is a hub of stasis, Silicon Valley is a place of constant upheaval. New ideas sprout up everyday, and die the next in the tech world, so its series reflects that. Fresh notions rarely hold much attention in D.C. and, sadly, its best portrait on TV illuminates that all.

And, it should be said, having Richard at the forefront of Valley does make a fundamental difference. Both universes promise more charity than they can deliver, and this is where the shows meet most commonly. Yet Veep captured, and has strayed too far from, a world that slides those promises through figureheads that start to blend together the more closely you look. Silicon Valley excels at creative change because it roots itself in a character that genuinely believes in that progression. Optimism is no better a creative outlook than cynicism. But here it illuminates how two similar worlds can travel at immensely different speeds.

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Josh Oakley is a writer for Cut Print Film and runs the pop culture blog Wine and Pop.

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