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HBO Fills Sunday Night Lineup With Entertaining Power Struggles


This is FRESH AIR. This Sunday HBO presents the season premiers of two returning series - "Game of Thrones" and "VEEP" - and launches a new series, a Mike Judge comedy called "Silicon Valley." Our TV critic David Bianculli has seen them all.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: HBO presents three series Sunday night: the season premiers of "Game of Thrones" and "VEEP" and the start of a new comedy, "Silicon Valley." But whether they're set in mythical kingdoms, Washington D.C., or northern California, these three very different shows have two things in common. One, is that they're all entertaining with characters that get more interesting the more you watch them.

The other is that, bottom line, they're all about power struggles. "Game of Thrones," based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, is starting season four and fans are still buzzing about the red wedding from last season that shockingly increased the show's body count. This season's first few episodes build up to another wedding and when it arrives it's another TV event worth savoring.

There's so much tension among the central members of the bridal party you could cut it with a knife - or a sword. And this season "Game of Thrones" has momentum on its side as various family factions prepare for war and for the worst. If "Game of Thrones" were a chess match, and in essence it is, we're into the middle part of the game now where tactics are revealed and even powerful pieces start to fall. I've seen the first three episodes of the new season and they're the strongest episodes yet.

"VEEP" is a sitcom starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, an ambitious and abrasive Vice President of the United States. It's starting season three on Sunday and it too has upped its game. Selina is running for president this season, which finally gives her something significant to do, but she has no clue about how to accomplish it or what personal sacrifices and political compromises she must make as she hits the campaign trail.

And her staffers, too, are on unfamiliar ground. This new storyline has given Selina and the show much more of a spine and "VEEP," like "Thrones," gets off to a very strong start this season. And then there's "Silicon Valley." This is the new comedy series co-created, co-written and directed by Mike Judge whose credits include the animated comedy "Beavis and Butthead" and "King of the Hill," and the cult movie "Office Space."

"Silicon Valley" is about a group of computers geeks - programmers toiling away in a sort of startup sweatshop frat house - who get a shot at the big time when one of their programs, a music file compression site, turns out to be a possible key to big bucks. Mike Judge used to be a Silicon Valley engineer in the late 1980s so he knows this world, or at least his vintage version of it, pretty well.

And in fact, this new series seems to borrow from all of the worlds Judge has created and explored to date. A lot of them have the social ineptness of "Beavis and Butthead." One of the other guys they encounter along the way, whose irrigation company has the same name as their proposed startup, Pied Piper, is a lot like Hank Hill from "King of the Hill."

And the corporate worlds these computer Beavises hope to crack, are run by either ruthless "Shark Tank" types or impatient visionaries. And they feel like the boss is in charge of the "Office Space" cubicle crowd. The most enjoyable moments in "Silicon Valley" are when these worlds cross orbits, as when Richard, the talented young programmer played by Thomas Middleditch, comes face to face with one of the big "Silicon Valley" sharks.

In this scene from episode two it's Peter Gregory, a startup investor played by Christopher Evan Welch, Richard visits his office with partner Erlich played by T.J. Miller in tow. Richard speaks first.


THOMAS MIDDLEDITCH: (as Richard) Me? OK. Uh, well, I - we're just really excited to get going, Mr. Gregory.

T.J. MILLER: (as Erlich) Yes.

CHRISTOPHER EVAN WELCH: (as Peter Gregory) Who's we?

MIDDLEDITCH: (as Richard) Myself, him, the guys back at the house.

WELCH: (as Peter Gregory) Guys? What guys? Who - who is this?

MILLER: (as Erlich) Erlich Bachman. I'm an entrepreneur much like yourself. Richard actually developed Pied Piper while residing in my incubator, so as per our agreement I own 10 percent of the company.

WELCH: (as Richard) I'm paying you $200,000 for five percent, yet you're giving this man twice that in exchange for a futon? And some sandwiches?

MILLER: (as Erlich) Actually, sir, my tenants provide their own food and...

WELCH: (as Peter Gregory) What other percentages have you apportioned? Can I see your cap table, investment deck, business plan, or any other relevant paperwork you may have prepared?

MIDDLEDITCH: (as Richard) I - I just was under the impression that we would just coming by and saying hi, you know, to pick up the check. And I just didn't know that any of that stuff was due yet.

WELCH: (as Peter Gregory) Due? This is not college, Richard. I'm not going to be giving you a course syllabus.

BIANCULLI: Mike Judge and company are confident enough to let "Silicon Valley" develop slowly. Lots of cable series, HBO series in particular, seem to do this. They trust viewers to stick around until the plot's thickened and the show shifts to a higher gear. That certainly happened on both "VEEP" and "Game of Thrones" and it may well occur with "Silicon Valley," but this first season is only eight episodes long so the plot of this startup better start moving a little more quickly.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.