Television

Power and Politics on HBO

June 16, 2014

A couple of HBO shows recently wrapped their seasons: two drastically different sagas about awful people and power politics, one comedy and one fantasy.

Two weeks ago, Veep’s third year came to an end. This foul-mouthed, quirky political comedy about a fictional vice president has never quite climbed onto my A list, but I watch it regularly primarily because Julia Louis-Dreyfus is so brilliant in the lead. The style of humor is unique, and doesn’t always click, but the cast is brilliant – Tony Hale, Anna Chlumsky, Gary Cole, Timothy Simons, and Kevin Dunn all stand out – and I often get a kick out of the unbelievably awful things they all say to each other. This year’s arc, about the veep’s presidential campaign, provides plenty of awkward situations and funny moments, and its final few episodes were among the series’ best. I don’t think this show will ever be a favorite, but so far it continues to be worth a casual watch.

Last night, a saga involving many, many differently awful people, Game of Thrones, wrapped its fourth season. This is another of those shows I’ve followed religiously without ever quite connecting whole-heartedly to the material. Oh, I’ve admired its high production values and its epic scope, and its complex fantasy world geopolitics are absorbing enough. But season four was a tough watch for me, as I finally figured out why I’ve been keeping the show at an arm’s length: it’s just so relentlessly bleak and gruesome and vicious that even I’m getting worn down by it. I’m not sure if it’s George R.R. Martin’s narrative, or the show’s execution of it, but I find its twists and turns – often orchestrated for maximum shock value – to be cumulatively depressing. This article by Bethany Jones is an illuminating read about the troubling nature of GoT’s sexual violence, and that’s definitely contributed to my weary disgust with the show, but mostly it’s just the show’s grim insistence of frequently, brutally shattering all hope.  In a show that has frequently irritated me, the final moments of “The Mountain and the Viper” were nearly the last straw: they left me seething with snarling rage, and nearly threw me out of the series entirely. But I hung in there for the last two episodes, and the show won me back, especially with “The Watchers on the Wall,” which is among the series’ strongest episodes. That episode and season finale “The Children,” for all their horrific violence, reintroduced some hope to the series – ensuring my return next season, where I’m sure I’ll have my heart broken and rage stoked all over again. Huh, it must be doing something right…

Finally a quick mention of non-fiction politics, also in the HBO vein. The weekly comedy news program Last Week Tonight has been on the air for several weeks now, and it’s bloody brilliant. Hosted by John Oliver, it follows in the footsteps of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but so far I’ve found it more focused and refreshing than either of those shows. Maybe its more forgiving schedule enables it to take more time to perfect its routines, but there’s also something slightly more upbeat about the way it eviscerates the ridiculousness of the world. I also admire that it’s not quite so US-centric, regularly broadening its scope to international affairs. I expect this to become a regular staple of my TV diet. Check out this epic sequence about the evil corporate-government conspiracy to destroy net neutrality:

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