While “Game of Thrones” sucks up oxygen with the frenzy surrounding its spring return, HBO also brings back two comedies preoccupied with money and power, respectively, in the sitcoms “Silicon Valley” and “Veep.” Granted, the latter is now actually misnamed, given that its central figure has received an improbable promotion, although given the headaches that bedevil her team, being “Veep” is really more a state of mind than a title. “Silicon Valley,” meanwhile, has impressively built into its storyline a real-life development that struck the show, and come away not only unbowed but with perhaps a renewed sense of vigor.
The relationship between these two programs isn’t immediately obvious, but both strive for a lighthearted tone, compared with the indie-film-like sensibilities of HBO’s “Girls,” “Looking” and “Togetherness,” all relatively dour examinations of personal relationships and urban self-absorption.
By contrast, “Veep” and “Silicon Valley” are in essence workplace comedies, with the former using the political backdrop as an excuse for its cynical characters to acerbically weigh in on issues of the day, while the tech-startup odyssey continues to mine the humorous aspects of showering riches on those who might have a head for writing code but, like “The Big Bang Theory,” are woefully lacking in social graces.
After an opening season of “Silicon Valley” that hinged on Richard (the wonderfully fidgety Thomas Middleditch) trying to decide where to take his new product, Pied Piper, the show was dealt a blow with the death of Christopher Evan Welch, the actor playing Peter Gregory, one of the two tech moguls vying for the rights.
Series creators Mike Judge, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky have wisely turned into the skid, as it were, by incorporating that tragedy into the story, suddenly throwing Pied Piper back onto the market, and forcing Richard and his eccentric buddies to begin a new round of interviews and negotiations regarding its future. The addition of Suzanne Cryer as another ruthless executive and Chris Diamantopoulos as a fast-talking dealmaker also help fill the void.
To its credit, “Silicon Valley” deals with issues of technology and high finance without talking down to its audience. But it still derives laughs from the ridiculous situations in which the characters find themselves, such as the decision of Richard’s boorish partner Erlich (T.J. Miller) to intentionally insult those who are courting them.
“Silicon Valley” could have gone a variety of routes with its second season, but this one feels about as good as could be expected under the circumstances — finding the most organic and even honest way, ultimately, to hit the reset button.
As for “Veep,” the epidemic of resigning presidents (see “House of Cards”) has also lifted Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer into the White House, though the elevation has only hastened an outbreak of crises that keep her staff in a constant state of agitation bordering on panic.
Series creator Armando Iannucci and his team certainly operate at a fast pace, in what at times feels like three-jokes-a-minute fashion, while rifling through recognizable interludes like delivering a joint address to Congress, dealing with military budget cuts or learning that the President’s daughter (Sarah Sutherland) doesn’t poll well.
On the down side, almost everyone speaks in the same rat-a-tat voice, which, as some discovered with Aaron Sorkin on “The Newsroom,” can begin to yield diminishing returns. The series also remains a bit too precious in sidestepping issues of partisanship, a conceit that has grown somewhat more tolerable over time.
For all that, the Emmy-winning Louis-Dreyfus remains an inordinately gifted comedic actress — the best of our time, if you’re inclined to believe Entertainment Weekly — and the role allows her to cut loose in ways that play to those strengths. (Nobody delivers a stream of exasperated invective quite like she does.)
The new season also incorporates a few modest new wrinkles, including the way the new president and her team delight in subjecting her Vice President (Phil Reeves) to the same sort of slights that she had to endure, and said Veep’s peculiar chief of staff (Patton Oswalt, a hoot as usual). Hugh Laurie is also scheduled to appear beyond the episodes previewed.
All told, it’s a solid one-two punch for HBO, one that has benefited awards-wise from its snappy qualities compared with the gloomy nature of many of the single-camera half-hours that have become a little too common in the premium space.
In that context, just endeavoring to be funny, without pretentiousness or angst, is its own version of a killer app.