AnTV: Veep and Fargo Season Premieres + April 15-April 21 Recap

This week saw the return of one of the funniest shows on television, Veep, and one of the best shows on television, period, with Fargo. There were a few standout episodes in other series as well. Sadly, for whatever reason, Fox aired no new episodes of its Sunday night series and The CW showed no new episodes of its DC Comics series. As a result, it was another depressingly light week for television.

***These reviews will be largely SPOILER-FREE with respect to the plot points of this episode. In order to properly discuss this episode, there will be some SPOILERS for the shows' earlier seasons. Of course, as always, these will be sandwiched between  "[SPOILER]" and "[/SPOILER]"***

Veep (HBO, Sunday @ 10:00 p.m.)

"Omaha"

Season 6, Episode 1

Grade: A-

Creator Armando Ianucci and HBO launched Veep six years ago to near-instant acclaim. Not only did the series seem to perfectly capture the non-stop joke-machine tendencies of classic sitcoms like Arrested Development and 30 Rock, it also managed to translate those comedic sensibilities to Washington, D.C., a place so ripe for satire that it was incredible nobody had thought to do anything like this already. The lynchpin to the entire operation, however, was the casting of comedy legend Julia Luis-Dreyfuss in the title role of Vice President Selina Meyer, the first female vice president in history. Selina agreed to unite with the president after he defeated her in the primary, settling for the role of veep instead, and her bitterness at those circumstances informs the character through much of the show's first few season.  JLD's scary talent for comedic timing and her acerbic wit helped catapult Selina Meyer into being one of the all-time great sitcom characters almost from the start, as watching her berate and order around her staff seemingly never gets old. And yet, while JLD is the main star here, the rest of Veep's cast is stocked full of incredible actors who could give pretty much any other sitcom ever a run for its money. Arrested Development's Tony Hale (as Gary Walsh), Sam Richardson (as Richard Splett), Anna Chlumsky (as Amy Brookheimer), Matt Walsh (as Mike McLintock), Timothy Simons (as Jonah Ryan), Reid Scott (as Dan Egan), Kevin Dunne (as Ben Cafferty), and the great Gary Cole (as Kent Davison) are all at the top of their game at all times, inhabiting their roles so well that their constantly shifting alliances and endless double-crosses always seem like natural actions their characters would be motivated to take. And the laughs truly do come so fast that it can be easy to miss the next joke. Or the one after that.

For four straight seasons, Veep had been going strong skewering politicians without taking sides (details like Selina's party affiliation, and even the president's name, weren't revealed until season 5). Then, following season four, creator Armando Ianucci decided to leave the show because he wanted to end it but HBO wanted it to continue. This left some measure of uncertainty with regard to the forthcoming fifth season of the series. Without Ianucci's hand guiding the production, many feared that the show would return as a shadow of its former self. Yet, when season 5 premiered last year, all those fears melted away as the weeks went on and it became clear that season 5 may have been Veep's finest season yet. [SPOILERS] After the election at the end of season 4 resulted in a tie, Selina (now the President of the United States after her predecessor had resigned in season 3) spent the bulk of season 5 attempting to orchestrate a vote in the House of Representatives which would have resulted in her being awarded the presidency. At the same time, Selina's running mate Tom James (Hugh Laurie, typically brilliant) had his own designs on the White House, which could have happened through an obscure congressional procedure if the House was unable to agree on a single candidate of the two running for president. Instead, however, both Meyer and James were left out when the presidency was given to Laura Montez, the running mate of Selina's opponent for the presidency. With the presidency lost, Selina left the White House at the end of season 5 heading into an unknown future, and viewers were left wondering how the show would respond in season 6.[/SPOILERS]

And now, a year later, season 6 has arrived and the question of "where does Veep go from here?" has been answered. The show picks up with the cast mostly scattered. Selina herself, still shadowed by Gary and now also joined by Richard Splett, is just coming back into the public eye, making an appearance on a CBS morning show guest-hosted by Dan Egan. Amy is running the gubernatorial campaign of Buddy Calhoun, the Nevada Secretary of State who Amy hooked up with in season 5 (and is now somehow, inexplicably even to Amy, her fiancé). Mike is spending time with his suddenly large number of children, playing at being a stay-at-home dad (with typically Mike-esque results), Ben is working for Uber, and Jonah is [SPOILERS] still a Congressman after winning the New Hampshire special election last year, with Kent on his staff looking clearly defeated.[/SPOILERS] The episode gives off a vibe that the season will be about "getting the band back together," however, which is great because watching these incredible actors play off one another is the best part about this series. Already, some of the seeds for reunion are being sown, although by the end of the episode Selina's grand plan for her future has been called into doubt by several people in her life, leaving the episode to end on yet another note of uncertainty.

In all, the episode was still laugh-out-loud hilarious. The decision to leave Selina in a similar emotional state to where she was at the beginning of the series should pay dividends in the form of giving JLD the chance to play at being the bitter, scorned version of Selina Meyer we first met six years ago. Watching the cast slowly come to the realization that they need each other in their lives over the next few weeks should be highly entertaining as well, mainly because each of them can be so self-destructive (and destructive to those around them) that watching them torpedo their newfound senses of stability just to return to the chaos of working together will be great fun. As far as premieres go, this episode had a lot of work to do in establishing the show's new status quo and also providing the expected humor, all in the span of only 30 minutes, and yet it accomplished that task marvelously. Everyone who isn't watching Veep should definitely do their best to catch up and come aboard.

Fargo (FX, Wednesday @ 10:00 p.m.)

"The Law of Vacant Places"

Season 3, Episode 1

Grade: A

Anthology series are all the rage these days. The television landscape is practically littered with them: American CrimeAmerican Horror StoryAmerican Crime StoryTrue DetectiveFeud, and the list can go on. It's easy to see the appeal of the modern anthology series, however; whereas older anthology shows like The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery told a new story in each episode, the modern anthology series instead tells a new story over the course of each season. One of the most frequent criticisms that I see for shows these days is that they can feel unfocused, especially because for most series the writers have no idea whether or not they will be renewed, so telling extended storylines spanning multiple seasons can leave viewers unfulfilled if a show is canceled before completing its narrative. The modern anthology series solves this problem by allowing writers to tell a complete story over the course of a single season (usually around 10 episodes) when can stay focused due to the determined end point and the limited number of installments to work with. It's no wonder that some of these anthology series have come to be among the most critically-acclaimed series on television at present.

No modern anthology series shines brighter than FX's Fargo, however. Inspired by the classic Coen Brothers film, Fargo the series was created by Noah Hawley (who just wrapped the mind-blowing first season of Legion, also on FX) and essentially borrows the tone (dark yet also quirky and grimly funny), setting (the northern midwest, specifically Minnesota), and general setup (a small town is disrupted by a botched act of violence perpetrated by an inept criminal) of the film, and then tells its own original stories working from that starting point. The first season, starring Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman, and Colin Hanks, was damn near perfect; the second, starring Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons, may have been even closer to perfection. Understandably, then, expectations for the this third season have been relatively high.

The cast this year is equally as brilliant as in years past. Ewan McGregor headlines in dual roles as brothers Ray and Emmit Stussy. Ray is a parole officer and underachiever, while Emmit is a successful businessman dubbed the "Parking Lot King of Minnesota." Michael Stuhlbarg (himself the star of the Coen Brothers' film A Serious Man) play Sy Feltz, Emmit's lawyer and right-hand man. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Nikki Swango, a parolee who becomes romantically involved with Ray Stussy and who is obsessed with competitive bridge (the card game). Carrie Coon plays Gloria Burgle, the small-town police chief who will go on to take the lead on investigating the crime committed in this premiere episode. And finally, David Thewlis (Lupin from the Harry Potter franchise) plays V. A. Varga, a mysterious and disturbing man who works for an as-yet unknown organized crime syndicate. With these heavy-hitters populating the principal cast, the show appears to be in good hands on the acting front.

As the premiere episode of an anthology series, this first hour has to set the stage for the events to come, introduce all of the new characters, and also be entertaining in its own right. Under the steady guidance of Noah Hawley (who both wrote and directed this premiere), the show manages to once again provide a compelling setup within the familiar Fargo framework that instantly leaves the viewer craving more. Ray Stussy feels that he was cheated out of his inheritance from his father by Emmit, and so he hires a parolee named Maurice (played by the always-reliable Scoot McNairy) to break into his brother's mansion and steal something from him. From this seemingly simple setup, the season's overall arc begins to take shape. By episode's end, several so-called "inciting incidents" have occurred which will no doubt lead these characters down a path of untold violence and destruction. Updating the setting to 2010 (season 2 took place in 1979, while season 1 took place in 2006), the show feels closer to modern times than it ever has, and yet something about the setting still feels out-of-time and mysterious. The otherworldly nature of the Fargo world's small town, near-constant winter truly lends the show a mystique that other series set in cities or in temperate climates simply cannot replicate.

Noah Hawley has, in my mind, earned the respect of viewers that few other television creators/showrunners have gotten; at this point, after two seasons of Fargo and one of Legion, he's earned Vince Gilligan or Dan Harmon-levels of trust. I eagerly await the coming weeks and the developments that they bring to this series. 

"What Else Is On??"

Saturday Night Live (Grade: B-) was hosted by Jimmy Fallon with Harry Styles as the musical guest; while not as insufferable an episode as I was expecting with Fallon as host, it didn't provide any incredible "wow" moments either.  Feud: Bette and Joan (Grade: A) aired its penultimate episode this week, which dealt with the continuing problems plaguing the production of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, specifically the problems caused by Joan Crawford pretending to be ill and halting production of the film. With only one episode left in the season, it is going to be interesting to see where Ryan Murphy chooses to end this tale of fading stars at each others' throats. Better Call Saul (Grade: A) raised the stakes in a number of ways, including finally bringing back Gus Fring after a tense and brilliantly filmed sequence inside of the Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Grade: A-) continued the Framework arc, with Skye and Simmons coming to terms with how far gone Fitz has become inside the virtual world. Archer (Grade: A) aired an absolutely hysterical episode in which Archer had to help orchestrate a prison escape.

What were your thoughts on the television that aired this week? Sound off in the comments below.