Tag Archives: HBO

HBO’s Leftovers a non-stop gloomathon

The Leftovers

Justin Theroux stars as beleaguered small-town police chief Kevin Garvey in `The Leftovers,’ which begins its first season Sunday night on HBO.


The Leftovers, an ambitious new HBO series adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s best-selling novel premiering Sunday night, opens with what is arguably its best scene. Three years ago, on Oct. 14, a frazzled young mother has just finished doing her laundry in a grimy laundromat, and now she’s buckling her whining infant into his car seat. That mission accomplished, she gets into the driver’s seat, chatting on her phone with someone at home, but then notices her baby has gone silent. No, wait. He’s just gone.
Panicking, she jumps out of the car and starts frantically calling the child’s name. Simultaneously, a few feet away in the same parking lot, a little boy begins screaming for his suddenly missing father, a grocery cart still in motion from where the dad had been pushing it a split second ago. In the distance, we see a serious car accident as one car, abruptly driverless, plows into another, badly injuring that driver.
Such eerie incidents are happening, not only here in rustic Mapleton, N.Y., but all around the globe, where mathematicians eventually will estimate that two percent of the world’s population has gone missing. Among those who were not spirited away, many of them surmise that the Rapture has occurred and they have been tried by heaven and found undeserving.
But is it? The more people look at who was taken, the less sense this “Sudden Departure” seems to make. Those who vanished on that Oct. 14 seemed to be a mystifyingly random collection. In addition to the righteous and heroic, that group also included known rapists, pedophiles, drug pushers, abusive parents and other heinous types. (In the only truly funny moment that occurs during the four episodes HBO provided for screening, we learn via a newscast in a bar that the Departed also included celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, Gary Busey, Jennifer Lopez and Shaquille O’Neal, among others).
Their loved ones snatched away by a bizarre event that surpasses comprehension, the remaining Mapleton residents struggle to find some meaning in their loss. Some suffer mental breakdowns. Some commit suicide. Others, like wife and mother Laurie (Amy Brenneman, Private Practice), leave their families to join a weird new fellowship that calls itself the Guilty Remnant. Its members, most of them chainsmokers, dress entirely in white and never speak, not even when alone with each other. Inherently non-confrontational, they travel in pairs and stand mutely yet prominently in public places, or quietly stalk local citizens who have caught their eye. They are not very popular.
The Guilty Remnant’s apparent purpose is to make sure no one forgets that the Sudden Departure happened. But to what end? The group doesn’t seem to attach explicitly religious significance to the event, nor can they shed any light on what it means. Four episodes in, I’m still completely stumped.
At the heart of The Leftovers is the Garvey family. The father, Kevin (Justin Theroux), is the town’s stressed-out police chief who realizes he is sitting on a pressure cooker that could blow at any moment. That’s true at home, too. His wife is gone, so three years after the event, Kevin and his headstrong teenage daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), are just trying to pretend that the “old normal” still prevails. Meanwhile, Kevin’s son, Tom (Chris Zylka), has drifted into the orbit of a cult leader (Paterson Joseph), who calls himself Holy Wayne and offers to “hug the pain away” for his acolytes, especially if they are underage Asian girls.
I absolutely get that The Leftovers is tackling some very big, very complex questions about the nature of life, the meaning of death, man’s relationship to God and the universe, lots of the biggies. And I applaud co-creators Perrotta and Damon Lindelof (Lost) for their courage and ambition. The huge ensemble — which also includes Ann Dowd (Michael Sheen’s mother in Showtime’s Masters of Sex), Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) and a beguiling theater-trained newcomer named Carrie Coon – turns in consistently strong work as well.
All that said, too much of The Leftovers is a real slog. Relentlessly somber even when it’s not aggressively depressing, the series just started to wear me down after awhile, and I’m not a guy who needs something to blow up on a regular basis to keep me entertained. I haven’t read Perrotta’s novel, but what may be fully engaging on the page too often feels inert and listless when we see it acted out. Case in point: the extended “conversations” between members of the Guilty Remnants, which force us to watch as one person scribbles down his “line” and shows it to the other person, who then takes his/her tablet and writes down the response and holds it up, etc., etc. If you think that doesn’t make for compelling television, well, you’d be right.
I watched all four of the episodes pretty much straight through, which is definitely not the way you want to approach such bleak material. On the other hand, it did make me feel immersed in the world of this story – because after four hours, I was ready to scream “Take me! Take me now!”
HBO's 'The Leftovers' with Amy Brenneman.

Laurie (Amy Brenneman) retreats to a mute existence in the Guilty Remnant in ‘The Leftovers’ on HBO.

HBO’s Normal Heart beats strong and true

'The Normal Heart' on HBO.

Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo (from left) head a stellar cast in ‘The Normal Heart,’ a devastating HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play about the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York.


Larry Kramer’s shattering play The Normal Heart opened Off-Broadway nearly 30 years ago, yet this blistering indictment of public and bureaucratic indifference during the early years of the AIDS crisis had to wait until this Sunday to make its transition to the screen, via HBO’s star-studded new TV movie.
Maybe Kramer’s play – part poignant personal drama, part furious polemic – was deemed too hot to handle by most film and TV producers, although some power players including Barbra Streisand tried to get Kramer’s Heart transplanted long before now.
At any rate, HBO’s stunning adaptation – directed by Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) from a screenplay by Kramer himself – was worth the wait. To some degree, watching this story at such a remove from the actual events of the play diminishes some of the piece’s power and urgency, but the human drama that remains is riveting in its own right.
Drawn primarily from Kramer’s own personal experiences, The Normal Heart opens in 1981 as gay writer Ned Weeks (Kramer’s alter ego, played by a very fine Mark Ruffalo, The Avengers) and his best friend, Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch, Friday Night Lights), arrive on Fire Island, a gay vacation mecca, for a weekend of partying. Although spirits are running high among most of the participants, we quickly notice that Ned is odd man out, his presence evoking outright hostility from several visitors. Turns out Ned recently wrote a very controversial book that was, among other things, a scathing denunciation of the promiscuity that was embraced by many gay men in those early days of gay liberation.
Ned, a schlubby, socially awkward 40-something who never has had a successful relationship, is regarded as a sour party-pooper by many of his gay peers, so when he starts trying to call attention to a mysterious new disease that seems to target homosexuals, much eye-rolling ensues.
His curiosity piqued, Ned turns to Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a flinty physician who is one of the few doctors treating most of this syndrome’s early victims. She admits that, while she suspects the disease is contracted during sex, she can’t prove it.
Taylor Kitsch, Jonathan Groff and Joe Mantello

Closeted gay New Yorker Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch, left) and his friend Mickey Marcus (Joe Mantello, right) desperately seek medical help for Bruce’s critically ill boyfriend (Jonathan Groff) in ‘The Normal Heart.’


After Bruce’s current boyfriend (Jonathan Groff, Glee) falls ill, Ned persuades Bruce and several other closeted gay men in the upper echelons of New York society to help him form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, but Ned is dumbfounded to discover that many of these “discreetly gay” gentlemen are so paranoid about their personal lives being made public that they don’t even want the name of their new organization to appear on the outside of fund-raising envelopes.
As Emma struggles in vain to raise public awareness and receive more – or, indeed, any – financial support to study what is starting to look terrifyingly like an epidemic, Ned, Bruce and their stressed-out inner circle are chronically at odds over how to be most effective, exacerbated by Ned’s tactless, confrontational style. It’s here that The Normal Heart really soars, making tangible all these years later how chaotic and acrimonious the early ‘80s were for the New York gay community, as a dearth of reliable medical information and a surfeit of public and governmental callousness left those at ground zero to fight relentlessly among themselves, when they weren’t attending memorial services for young, talented friends cut down in their prime.
“We’re losing an entire generation,” sighs GMHC executive director and hospital worker Tommy Boatright (Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory, in the TV movie’s most endearing performance). “Young men, at the beginning, just gone. Choreographers, playwrights, dancers, actors: all those plays that won’t get written now, all those dances never to be danced. … I keep screaming inside, ‘Why are they letting us die? Why is no one helping us?’ “
The seamless ensemble contributes one remarkable performance after another. Ruffalo, best known as a romantic leading man in other movies, doesn’t shy away from Ned’s often abrasive, in-your-face personal style, while Matt Bomer (White Collar) reveals new depths as Felix Turner, the patient New York Times reporter who falls in love with Ned. Roberts, strenuously glammed-down, gives an appropriately testy and vanity-free performance as Dr. Brookner. Kitsch also shows unexpected range as a golden boy and former Green Beret forced by fate to become a completely different kind of hero, and Joe Mantello – who played Ruffalo’s role in a recent Tony-winning Broadway revival of Kramer’s play – has an unforgettable scene in which his character, GMHC board member Mickey Marcus, suffers a complete breakdown from the relentless pressure he and his peers are enduring.
If you were lucky enough to see The Normal Heart during its original 1985 theatrical run in New York or, as I did, in one of the many regional theater productions that quickly followed, you probably remember feeling that you were witnessing something historic, an artistic event firmly plugged into a chilling and still-unfolding real-life crisis that had no resolution on the horizon.
Watching the same story at home, three decades later, with AIDS now regarded as a somewhat manageable health condition, The Normal Heart no longer screams with quite the same unfettered rage. As a time capsule of a truly harrowing time in recent American history, however, it’s close to perfect.
Julia Roberts

Oscar winner Julia Roberts stars as the beleaguered Dr. Emma Brookner in ‘The Normal Heart’ on HBO.

HBO’s All About Ann recalls a Texas firebrand

'All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State' premieres tonight on HBO.

The HBO documentary ‘All About Ann’ revisits highlights from the life and career of Ann Richards, including her unforgettable keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.

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Premiering tonight on HBO, All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State opens exactly where you might expect it to open: at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.
The second term of President Ronald Reagan and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, was nearing its end, and the Democratic National Committee had been looking for someone to light a fire under delegates for its Michael Dukakis-Lloyd Bentsen ticket. To deliver the keynote speech, they turned to Texas State Treasurer Ann Richards, who was not especially well known at the time outside of her home state.
If Richards arrived in Atlanta a relative unknown, however, she left a political superstar, having delivered a caustically funny, career-defining speech in which, among other things, she remarked that Bush, the Republican candidate to succeed Reagan, “was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
“Unfortunately, I screwed up the final campaign,” Dukakis reflects now in this 82-minute documentary. “I always say that I peaked in Atlanta, and one of the reasons is that Ann did such a fantastic job. Everybody knew who Ann Richards was when that convention was over.”
Born in 1933 in Lakeview, Texas, Ann Willis grew up with poor but progressive parents, including a father who constantly assured her that she could become anything she set her mind to, as long as she was willing to work for it. In high school, she excelled in speech and debate and attended college on a debate-team scholarship. After marrying her high school sweetheart, attorney David Richards, she moved with him to Austin, where she taught classes at a junior high school and raised four children.
Especially compared to Dallas, Austin was a hotbed of progressive politics, a cause both David and Ann embraced enthusiastically. She worked tirelessly in support of liberal Democrats and eventually David talked her into running for office herself. Ann initially resisted the notion, fearing it would take a toll on their marriage. She was right: As her political career began to take off, the couple eventually divorced but remained cordial. Around this time, Richards also sought treatment for what she recognized to be a growing addiction to alcohol.
Her quick wit and Texas charm made Richards a hot commodity on the fund-raising circuit, where candidates frequently booked her to make appearances.
“She was a traveling late-night show, but she did not have an entourage of comedy writers,” notes former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes. “Some of Ann’s greatest lines were written at the head table while she was sitting there waiting to speak.”
After her term as state treasurer, Richards entered and, against all odds, won a bitter 1990 Texas gubernatorial race in which she was hammered relentlessly by male opponents from her own party as well as her Republican opponent, cowboy millionaire Clayton Williams, who committed the twin sins of being publicly rude to Richards and blurting out a series of unfortunate gaffes, including the admission that he paid no income tax one year.
As governor, Richards moved swiftly and decisively to take power away from special-interest groups and eliminate cronyism, but as her first term neared its close, with Richards at a 60-plus percent approval rating, those interests lashed back, supporting novice opponent George W. Bush. Bush may have lacked experience, but he had a secret weapon in Karl Rove, a campaign strategist who understood that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the “truth.” Although the crime rate was dropping in Texas for the first time in decades, Bush kept repeating assertions that Richards was soft on crime. Behind the scenes, Rove unleashed a “whisper campaign” insisting that Richards was a lesbian.
When the dust settled, she lost re-election by eight percentage points. Disappointed yet undaunted, Richards reckoned that she had another good 20 years ahead of her and took on a heavy schedule of appearances supporting progressive candidates and women’s rights issues. This time, however, her prediction was off the mark: What she thought was chronic attacks of heartburn turned out to be esophageal cancer, which claimed her life in 2006 at age 73.
All About Ann filmmakers Keith Patterson and Phillip Schopper drew heavily on interviews with close friends, family members and admirers of Richards, including ex-husband David Richards and their children Cecile and Dan; politicians Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and former Texas mayors Ronald Kirk and Henry Cisneros; newsman Tom Brokaw, and longtime close friend and columnist Liz Smith.
It’s no surprise, though, that the most memorable moments in All About Ann come from archival footage of Richards herself, a rose of Texas who was anything but yellow. As the country swings into what promises to be some very ugly mid-term politicking, the integrity and passion for equality that Richards embodied are starting to seem, regrettably, like fondly remembered antiques.
Ann Richards

Texas Gov. Ann Richards in 1992.

A new Sleeping Beauty in the manner Bourne

Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North star as Princess Aurora and her selfless lover, Leo, in 'Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty.'

Aurora (Hannah Vassallo) is awakened from her long sleep by Leo (Dominic North), who has given up his mortality to be with her, in ‘Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty,’ a ‘Great Performances’ presentation premiering tonight on many PBS affiliates.


The genius hailed by The New Yorker as “the most popular choreographer of theatrical dance in the Western World” wakes up a ballet classic in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, a Great Performances presentation airing tonight on many PBS affiliates (be sure to check listings in your area).
Bourne explains during the two brief but illuminating interview segments that bookend this Sleeping Beauty that his family didn’t listen to much classical music when he was growing up. As in his earlier productions of the two other Tchaikovsky dance masterworks – The Nutcracker, which Bourne set in a grim Dickensian orphanage, and Swan Lake, which featured an all-male corps de ballet of swans – Bourne’s principal focus is on telling a story that is dramatically arresting while still satisfying fans of the piece in its traditional form.
When he sized up the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, which dates from the 14th century, Bourne immediately noticed that, in terms of its love story, the yarn was a resounding flop.
“This prince kisses her and wakes her up, she looks at him, and next thing you know, they’re getting married, someone she’s never even met,” Bourne says. “You don’t really feel anything at all.”
Instead of using the traditional fairy-tale period setting, Bourne opens his production of Sleeping Beauty in London’s Victorian era, circa 1890 (the year of the ballet’s premiere). In the first act, we encounter the rambunctious baby Princess Aurora in the form of an intricately designed marionette that causes the palace staff endless headaches. In the next act, when we meet the 21-year-old Aurora (Hannah Vassallo), she’s a spirited, almost tomboyish young woman who has flouted convention and fallen in love with Leo (Dominic North), the royal gardener. Obviously, that enhances the love-story element in the ballet, but it presented Bourne with another conundrum: If Aurora has to sleep for 100 years, what happens to poor Leo?
“Aurora has fallen in love with someone who then has the problem of trying to stay alive for her when she wakes up,” Bourne says of his and Leo’s dilemma.
Happily, as it turns out, the production’s setting roughly coincided with London’s obsession with Gothic literature (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, was written in 1897), and Bourne found his audacious solution while watching HBO’s True Blood. Instead of pretty ladies in pastel tutus, the good fairies of Sleeping Beauty would be a family of benign vampires in elegant yet slightly moldering garments, led by the powerful Count Lilac (Christopher Marney). That concept also gave Leo a poignant way to demonstrate his love for Aurora, by surrendering his very mortality in order to stay by her side.
Like all of his other productions, Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is jam-packed with fantastic stage images, such as the stormy entrance of the dark fairy Carabosse (Adam Maskell) and her minions, who look like one of the Furies crossed with a satyr. When she pronounces her curse on the baby Aurora, her dark prophecy is mimed by an Aurora double with a blank, mannequin-like face. It’s chillingly effective, as is the moment in the second act when Carabosse’s vengeful son, Caradoc (Maskell again), activates the curse not with the tainted spindle of a spinning wheel, but via a thorn on a black rose that was his late mother’s favored calling card.
In traditional productions of Sleeping Beauty, once the prince has awakened his sleeping beauty, the story effectively is over, apart from another half hour or so of celebratory dances at the royal wedding. Bourne, however, interjects yet another plot twist that sends the narrative in a totally unexpected direction and keeps the suspense going almost until the very end of the ballet.
A press release from Great Performances describes Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty as “a gothic fairy tale for all ages,” and that’s largely true. Bourne’s earlier productions of, say, The Car Man (adapted from Bizet’s opera Carmen) and Swan Lake may have raised some eyebrows with their unmistakable currents of homoeroticism, but there’s nothing in this Sleeping Beauty to frighten the horses or, more pertinently, parents of youngsters. Very small fry who know and love the traditional Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, however, probably will be very confused by many of Bourne’s somewhat eccentric narrative changes.
There’s no denying, though, that Bourne has given one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular ballets a welcome dose of creative caffeine. I won’t point out all the ingenious little character touches this master choreographer comes up with, but I have to mention a moment that occurs early in Act Three, set in contemporary (2011) London. The massive, locked iron gates surrounding Aurora’s palace have become a tourist destination, and as guidebook-toting visitors take selfies for their Instagram pages, a young woman tenderly sticks a commemorative rose into the metal bars. As she does so, she pricks her finger and fairly swoons, overcome by the cosmic romantic significance of the accident. It’s a tiny moment that’s both funny and touching.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in Matthew Bourne’s head, which apparently is the scene of constant and boundless creativity. I’m just glad that every now and then I get to visit there.
Count Lilac and Caradoc

Count Lilac (Christopher Marney, left) tries to vanquish the evil Caradoc (Adam Maskell) at the climax of ‘Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty.’

Selina gears up her presidential run in new Veep season

Season 3 of 'Veep' premieres tonight on HBO.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus (front and center) joins (from left) Reid Scott, Sufe Bradshaw, Matt Walsh, Timothy C. Simons, Tony Hale, Gary Cole and Anna Chlumsky in Season 3 of ‘Veep,’ premiering tonight on HBO.


Capping a very full night for HBO, the hilarious, Emmy-winning political sitcom Veep returns for its third season, which sees terrifyingly ambitious Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) launching her campaign to be president.
Each season of Veep has captured Selina at a different stage in her political career. Season 1 found her at her lowest, after a previous presidential bid flamed out and left her in the thankless role as second-in-command to the unseen POTUS, who never returned calls or dropped by her office. By Season 2, set after midterm elections that were disastrous for Selina’s (unspecified) political party, her fortunes started to turn once White House staff noticed that Selina was a first-class populist who could charm a crowd with such cornball mottos as “Freedom is not me-dom! It’s WE-dom!”
As Season 3 opens, Selina faces new hurdles before she can publicly announce her candidacy. First, POTUS refuses to announce he is not seeking re-election until the White House senior strategist Kent Davison (Gary Cole) finds a poll that indicates it’s advantageous to do so.
Second, she has to pick a campaign manager, and in-house rivals Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), Selina’s chief of staff, and Dan Egan (Reid Scott), her smarmy deputy director of communications, are competing bitterly for that position.
Finally, in tonight’s premiere, Selina’s team is dismayed by signs that an unexpected, more conservative contender for the nomination is getting ready to throw his hat into the ring.
Some of Selina’s other staff members have distractions of their own, however. Gary Walsh (Tony Hale, who won an Emmy last season), Selina’s doggedly loyal personal aide, is suffering from crippling shoulder pain that comes partly from toting around the massive bag in which he has packed every conceivable item Selina might need. Some of that pain may be psychological, however, since Gary is starting to fret about being a middle-aged bag-boy.
As for Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh), Selina’s director of communications, Season 3 opens with his wedding to girlfriend Wendy (new recurring guest star Kathy Najimy), which includes a commitment to have a baby together via in-vitro fertilization – which means in turn that Wendy expects Mike to take, um, task-related breaks at work.
Watching the first five Season 3 episodes HBO sent for preview (out of 10 for the season), I was struck by two things: first, how the character-driven Veep just gets stronger every season, as we get better acquainted with the people in its world and its cast members continue to meld into one of the most amazing comedy ensembles I’ve ever seen (it’s easy to see why Veep has won two Emmys for casting).
Foremost, however, there’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus herself, who has won the Emmy Award as lead actress in a comedy for both of Veep’s previous seasons. I don’t expect that to change with Season 3, because I found myself watching some of these new episodes over and over just to try to catch all the incredible details Louis-Dreyfus packs into every moment.
I strongly suspect this actress is probably the Meryl Streep of the American sitcom. I know, that sounds like lazy hyperbole, and you can watch these new episodes casually and still enjoy them. But pay close attention to them and you can see that the blazingly intelligent Louis-Dreyfus is constantly shifting dizzyingly from one emotion to another, and often conveying multiple emotions and attitudes at the same time – and when I say “multiple,” I mean “way more than two.”
Consider next week’s episode, “The Choice,” in which Selina, a very discreetly pro-choice candidate, is rocked by POTUS’s out-of-left-field announcement that he is adamantly pro-life. As calls from various lobbying groups start to pour into Selina’s office asking her to clarify her position, she tries frantically to answer both sides in a manner that will not cost her votes.
Then Mike rushes in with a phone call from the ACCDP. He has no idea what the acronym stands for, but he’s reasonably sure the group is pro-life. As Selina takes the call, however, Amy desperately signals her that, no, no, no, the group is pro-choice. Selina struggles to navigate the call without committing herself, but her attempts at fishing for clues fall short as the caller keeps saying things like “Our position has not changed.”
Maybe it’s just me, but watching Louis-Dreyfus fighting to maintain her calm and sunny phone voice with a volatile caller while furiously miming “WHO THE F—- IS THIS?!” to Mike and Amy is one of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen on Veep.
(Spoiler alert: It didn’t really matter, because as it turns out, the call actually came in from the ADCCP, not the ACCDP. Although Mike has no idea what the ADCCP is, either).
God, I love this show.
Director of communications Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh, front-row center) weds his girlfriend, Wendy (Kathy Najimy) in the season premiere of 'Veep.'

Director of communications Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh, front-row center) weds his girlfriend, Wendy (Kathy Najimy) in the season premiere of ‘Veep.’

Silicon Valley gains confidence over time

'Silicon Valley' premieres tonight on HBO.

T.J. Miller, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods and Thomas Middleditch (from left) star in ‘Silicon Valley,’ premiering tonight on HBO.


Like one of its nerdy principal characters, HBO’s Silicon Valley, which premieres tonight, seems painfully unsure of itself during its first half-hour episode. Co-created by Mike Judge (Office Space, King of the Hill) and based partly on Judge’s personal ’80s experiences as a Silicon Valley engineer, this sometimes savage new sitcom takes awhile to find its tone and comic groove, but improves steadily over the course of the initial five episodes HBO sent out for preview.
Set in the tech-centric region of Northern California where everyone, it seems, is looking for the next hot app, Silicon Valley focuses primarily on a group of socially awkward programmers sharing quarters in the Hacker Hostel start-up “incubator” owned by dotcom millionaire Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller, The Goodwin Games). In exchange for their room and board, the resident nerds toil away at the programs they have in development, to which Erlich is promised a 10 percent share.
One of the group, Richard (Thomas Middleditch), is concentrating on Pied Piper, an app for songwriters, but billionaire venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) passes on his pitch. Some senior programmers at the tech giant Hooli, however, discover that Richard’s Pied Piper program contains a powerful data-compression algorithm that has limitless commercial possibilities.
An intense bidding war breaks out between Hooli’s hyper-intense CEO, Gavin Belson (recurring guest star Matt Ross, Big Love), who wants to buy Pied Piper outright for $10 million, and a newly interested Gregory, who offers to help Richard develop and grow Pied Piper while giving him a $200,000 cash infusion for start-up costs in exchange for five percent of the company.
Overwhelmed by his good fortune, the deeply insecure Richard opts for the latter, dreaming of creating his own Google-like success story, joined by the other house nerds: Big Head (Josh Brener), his longtime best friend; sly Pakistani programmer Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani, Franklin & Bash); arrogant Gilfoyle (Martin Starr, Party Down); and, in episode two, business guru Jared (Zach Woods, The Office), a former Hulli executive.
Alas, Richard – whose social ineptitude is matched only by his naivete – quickly finds that he lacks the right stuff to swim with the big Silicon Valley sharks and he must weather one staggering blow after another as the series unfolds.
Co-creator Judge, who also directs four of the eight episodes in Season 1 of Silicon Valley, clearly has, at best, mixed feelings about the time he spent in this world, given his merciless take-downs of many of its personalities (real-life Silicon Valley engineers reportedly have given the series very high marks for accuracy). Anyone who tunes in expecting a variation on TV’s other hot nerd comedy, The Big Bang Theory, is in for a shock.
Straight-on heroes are hard to find in Silicon Valley, and most of its characters are emotionally stunted, if not obsessively selfish. In some respects, Richard is the most admirable, but he’s a techno-Forrest Gump whose successes are, for the most part, flukes. He doesn’t even grasp the most valuable part of his own computer program until someone else points it out to him, and even then, he can’t even articulate what he wants to do with it.
“You turned down $10 million to be able to develop something that you, as the head of the company, cannot even describe to another human being,” an exasperated Dinesh points out to him at one point.
After weeks of unusually heavy promotion, HBO is giving Silicon Valley a platinum-level launch tonight, positioning the new comedy behind the Season 4 premiere of the very nerd-friendly smash Game of Thrones, and if tonight’s pilot is uneven, by episode three or four Silicon Valley pretty much hits its stride and delivers a reliable number of belly laughs. Among its tight ensemble, I’d give top honors to Welch, who raises social awkwardness to epic new heights, and Woods, whose hilariously self-effacing Jared (“I like angry people, because I know where I stand with them”) is perhaps the show’s most endearing character.
A friendship is tested on 'Silicon Valley.'

Thomas Middleditch and Josh Brener star as two longtime best friends whose relationship is sorely tested in ‘Silicon Valley.’

Mr. Selfridge reopens for a second season on PBS

'Mr. Selfridge' on PBS.

Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven, center) thanks his staff on his store’s fifth anniversary in tonight’s two-hour ‘Masterpiece’ premiere of ‘Mr. Selfridge’ on PBS.


Mr. Selfridge, the glossy and gloriously addictive Masterpiece soap opera somewhat freely adapted from historical events, ended Season One (now available for free streaming for Amazon Prime subscribers) with Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) at a low point both personally and professionally. Window designer Henri LeClair (Gregory Fitoussi), whose displays had played an invaluable part in giving Selfridge’s department store a striking public image, had turned in his notice to accept a high-profile job in New York, a decision Harry perceived as a personal betrayal.
Far worse, his long-suffering wife, Rose (Frances O’Connor), decided to leave London and take their children back to America after she reluctantly agreed to accompany her husband to the opening of a new play that starred his most recent mistress, only to discover the piece was a savage satire attacking the private lives of her family.
Season Two, which premieres tonight on PBS with a two-hour episode, picks things up five years later, in the spring of 2014, as the Selfridge’s staff prepares to celebrate the store’s fifth anniversary. Rose, good as her word, has kept the kids stateside during the interval, but she returns to London to perform her wifely duties – specifically and pointedly limited to performing her Mrs. Selfridge role at public events. Beyond that, she makes clear, she is not remotely interesting in resuming a relationship with Harry after his years of compulsive infidelity.
Joining his parents in London is Selfridge scion Gordon (Greg Austin), now 15, who announces his intentions to quit school in favor of starting his training to run a store he eventually will inherit. Rose protests, but Harry approves. Unfortunately for Gordon, he soon discovers that being the boss’s son, especially at a time when rumors of war are stirring up labor unrest, can be a mixed blessing at best.
Greg Austin joins the cast of the 'Masterpiece' series 'Mr Selfridge' this season.

Greg Austin takes over the role of son Gordon Selfridge, now 15, in tonight’s Season Two premiere of ‘Mr. Selfridge’ on ‘Masterpiece.’


The gala anniversary prompts the return of others as well, including Harry’s protégée Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), back from an intensive two-year design program in Paris and ready to assume her new duties as head of display for the entire store. She immediately clashes, however, with Selfridge’s officious new head of fashion, Mr. Thackeray (Cal Macaninch), who promptly starts engineering a stealth campaign to ensure Agnes’ failure.
Elsewhere, Harry’s high-maintenance yet loyal friend and benefactor Lady Mae (Katherine Kelly) faces an unpleasant obstacle when her errant and usually absent husband, Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle), unexpectedly returns, bankrupt from gambling and seeking to replenish his fortune by fair means or foul – mostly the latter, which include blackmail and war profiteering.
On a far more pleasant note, those of us who watched sadly last season as Miss Mardle (the glorious Amanda Abbington, Sherlock) was jilted by her selfish lover, Mr. Grove (Tom Goodman-Hill), can revel in some major karmic blowback this season, as fate smiles brightly on the former and nearly crushes the latter.
Also joining the cast this season is the delightful Polly Walker (HBO’s Rome) as Rose’s new close friend Delphine Day, whose bohemian sensibilities – along with a spicy autobiography and sexy new nightclub – only sharpen Rose’s resolve to be her own woman, free of submission to Harry’s humiliations.
Piven, who is also a producer on the series, is somewhat ideally cast as the intense, brash title character, and he pulls off the character’s more vulnerable moments – which felt false too often in Season One – more successfully in the new episodes (to paraphrase a very old joke, apparently this actor finally has mastered the art of faking sincerity). The only jarring note is the new character of Lord Loxley, a one-dimensional pipsqueak of a villain portrayed by McArdle in a laughably over-the-top performance.
As in Season One, the lavish physical production, with what appears to be slavish attention to period details, is beyond reproach, fully on the same impressive level as Masterpiece’s uber-smash, Downton Abbey. Mr. Selfridge may not be high art, but it is gourmet popcorn of the highest level.
Polly Walker (center) joins the cast of 'Mr. Selfridge' for  Season Two.

Rose Selfridge (Frances O’Connor, left) congratulates her new friend Delphine Day (Polly Walker, center) on the publication of her racy new autobiography in tonight’s ‘Maseterpiece’ season premiere of ‘Mr. Selfridge.’