Sitcoms are simple. I know that sounds kind of odd coming from someone who has written a frankly embarrassing amount of articles analyzing the medium, but they really are. A group of people, either a family or friends/coworkers who function as a sort of family, gets themselves caught in a situation and hilarity ensues (Hence the name, situation comedy). Storytelling wise, a sitcom is as formulaic and simplistic as they come.
Over the years, people have tinkered with the formula. The most revolutionary innovation being the introduction of serialized stories, or plots that last longer than one episode. The basic sitcom formula necessitates that all conflicts and plots should be wrapped up in a neat little bow by the end of each episode. Early innovators like Cheers changed the game by telling stories that played out over entire seasons. Those stories weren’t that complex or hard to follow, most of the time they were just standard romantic comedy plots (Boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl likes boy, they don’t get together for what seems like forever, you know how TV romance works).
But the saga of Sam and Diane paved the way for TV comedies to tell more complex stories than ever before. Though that might sound like a good thing, it has become a double edged sword. Some writers are compelled to tell stories that are too complex and lose the comedy (Remember The Comedians?), while others go all-in on one serialized story that doesn’t connect with viewers (Still lookin’ at you, The Comedians). The other side of the coin, however, is TV’s best comedy: HBO’s Silicon Valley
Sunday night, HBO’s tech satire finished up a magnificent third season that cemented the show as the best comedy on TV. Even more impressive though, was how creator Mike Judge and company earned that title: Through the strength of the show’s storytelling, not it’s jokes.
Each season of Silicon Valley has told a more complex and interesting story than the one that came before it.
Season 1 was undeniably funny, but was held back somewhat by the untimely death of Christopher Evan Welch (who played Peter Gregory)*. The tragic events forced the writers to pivot midway through the season and, understandably, simplify the plot. Season 1 was still somewhat serialized, but each plot’s primary purpose was to get to a joke. Whether that be Jared finding himself trapped in self driving car on a fake island, or Erlich going on drug-induced vision quests, the plot’s function was to get the show to its next big laugh. That’s by no means a bad thing, almost every comedy on TV is structured like that. Plus it was that kind of plot development that helped the show pull off “Middle Out”, which is the undisputed best dick joke of all time.
But starting in Season 2, Silicon Valley shifted away from joke-driven plots and started focusing on arcs that told complete and satisfying stories, independant of the jokes contained within them. The show wasn’t any less funny, but no plot was wasted or unused in the grand scheme of things. Take season 2’s live streaming arc for example. The first episode of the arc, “Homicide”, feels like a classic sitcom role-reversal plot. Erlich (TJ Miller) and Richard (Thomas Middleditch) suddenly switch social standings when Pied Piper visits the headquarters of an energy drink company (With the appropriately ridiculous name: Homicde). Richard suddenly becomes the socially able one, while Erlich can’t find a way in. Erlich eventually embarrasses himself trying to impress the Homicide execs, in typically hilarious fashion, which costs Pied Piper a potential business partnership with Homicide.
On most series this plot would be a simple one-off episode, but on Silicon Valley the events of “Homicide” have wide-ranging implications on the show’s universe. Hooli steps in and fills Pied Piper’s spot to live stream Homicide’s event, while Pied Piper is left to live stream the birth of a baby condor (Jared’s idea). This leads to Hooli’s public failure at live stream video, and Pied Piper’s miraculous rise as their condor birth stream goes viral once a technician gets stuck in the exhibit 127 hours style. Those events, in turn, magnify the importance of the trial over Pied Piper’s ownership between Gavin Belson and Richard. The trial is the only thing keeping Pied Piper from leaving all it’s competition (namely Gavin Belson and Hooli) in the dust, so the audience desperately cares about the outcome. The events have genuine stakes, which have been meticulously laid out through various sub-plots (like “Homicide”) over the course of the season.
Silicon Valley is an undeniably funny show, but it is also one where the viewer genuinely cares about what happens next, because the show has taught us that the events unfolding will almost certainly have a large impact on the world and characters we love. Which is in stark contrast to most TV comedies, like New Girl: A very funny show, but one where none of the subplots have much, if any, dramatic weight.
Giving stories dramatic weight isn’t revolutionary, in fact, most TV dramas (serialized ones, in particular) have been telling stories this way for decades. But in comedy, the tendency is to avoid complicated plots in order to let the jokes shine. After all, the jokes are the main reason people tune in, and the more complex a plot gets, the harder it is for a show to focus on the humor.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “But you said Silicon Valley was TV’s best comedy, and you also said the show has a complex plot, then you said good comedies don’t have complicated plots… so what the hell man?”
Yes, I did say all that, and I know it doesn’t make any sense now, but I promise I have an outline and this will all make sense soon**. Just give me a few more paragraphs.
The average sitcom episode runs about 22 minutes, and in that time the writers must tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, while also being funny enough to keep the audience engaged. In 22 minutes, it’s next to impossible to tell a very complex story while still remaining funny. That’s why, even after all these years, sitcoms are still recycling a lot of the same old setups (“____’s ex /or parents are in town” or “___tells a simple lie that spirals out of control,” etc). The less time the episode has to spend explaining the plot to the audience, the more time the show has to be funny.
Silicon Valley is different for two main reasons. The first being that because the show airs on HBO, they have 30 minutes to tell their story each week. Additionally, the show takes advantage HBO’s lack of censorship consistently (In case you didn’t believe me), so syndication was a non-starter almost immediately. In other words, Silicon Valley repeats were never going to join Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory on TBS’s “We play the same five shows all day, every day” line-up. Which meant that plots never had to be cleanly wrapped up at the end of each episode, giving the story even more room to breath.
But second, and more importantly: The show’s writers and incredibly talented cast have mastered the art of making bland exposition dialogue funny and engaging. In other words, the time Silicon Valley spends on plot, and the time it spends being funny aren’t mutually exclusive. That way, the show can move it’s story forward through dialogue without losing any comedic momentum.
Take this scene from the third season finale in which Erlich tells the tale of how he got an investor interested in Pied Piper. The information the scene must convey to the viewer is pretty boring, but the way the show decides to tell the story makes this scene an all-timer.
The scene is incredibly funny, but also advances the plot and gets the show closer to the season’s endgame. Walking that tightrope between story and comedy is incredibly difficult, and nearly impossible for most TV comedies, but Valley does it with ease.
In my mind, there are a handful of other shows that can match Silicon Valley joke for joke airing now (Namely: Brooklyn Nine Nine, New Girl, Veep, Always Sunny, Kimmy Schmidt, You’re The Worst). But on Silicon Valley the story fuels the comedy, not the other way around. That allows seemingly innocuous arcs about an awful-looking chain to become absolute world shattering cliff-hanger (The video cuts out the spoiler-y cliffhanger, so watch without fear!). That ability to blend engaging, well-structured serialized storytelling with consistently hilarious jokes is why Silicon Valley is the best comedy on TV, and it isn’t really that close.
All three seasons of Silicon Valley are available on HBOGo.
Season 4 is set to premiere next spring.
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*Who in my mind, is still responsible for the show funniest subplot:
**By the time I actually wrote this sentence, I had pretty much thrown out the outline and began to wing it, but I enjoyed that transition a lot so I kept it.