‘Silicon Valley’ and the hyperreal sitcom

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by Brian Clarey

The ensemble cast of “Silicon Valley” is a group of nerds about to become billionaires after creating revolutionary compression software, all living in a house together. The jokes write themselves.
The ensemble cast of “Silicon Valley” is a group of nerds about to become billionaires after creating revolutionary compression software, all living in a house together. The jokes write themselves.

The television situational comedy, once the staple of primetime network programming, is deader than Hammer pants.

You know: Those baggy jodhpur-looking things MC Hammer made famous in his 1990 ode to himself, “U Can’t Touch This.”

The thing is, Hammer pants are coming back in style, only they’re better: a more streamlined cut, finer fabrics, way less obnoxious patterns.

The sitcom is back, too — though in reality it never really went away. Even as network primetime schedules churned with cop shows, dramas, reality schlock and more cop shows for the last decade, there have always been a couple of sitcoms on the slate worth checking out. “The Office” “Community.” “Arrested Development.” There’s always a couple of them.

The whole concept of the sitcom changed with “Seinfeld,” a groundbreaking show about real-seeming people in a real place, New York City. That injection of realism and continuity — “Seinfeld” notably ran storylines and recurring characters over several seasons, unlike the sometimes disjointed plots of sitcoms past.

But even “Seinfeld” seems contrived by today’s standards. Sitcoms today are shot on location as opposed to a fixed set, like Jerry’s apartment, and in the style of reality television, with hand-held camera shots and even character interviews, like on “Modern Family.”

“Modern Family” resonates because it reflects, somewhat accurately, aspects of what many families look like today, minus the fabulous wealth and unrealistic levels of attractiveness. But hey, that’s TV for ya.

This brings me, somewhat meanderingly, to my subject, HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” which is the funniest show on television right now — or was the funniest. This weekend’s first-season finale capped everything after just eight episodes. But thanks to the repetitive magic of HBO, subscribers can watch it pretty much anytime.

The show follows a boy genius a la Mark Zuckerberg who has written a revolutionary streaming code and is in the process of turning his idea into the sort of fortune for which that part of California is known: vast and fast, and sometimes fleeting.

It’s a world ripe for lampooning, and each script teases out more absurdities within high-tech culture. It’s something show creator Mike Judge does most effectively in his feature films like Idiocracy and Office Space. He’s come a long way since “Beavis and Butthead.”

“Silicon Valley” works because of the subject matter and cast, but also because of the element of reality.

Judge actually worked as a programmer in Silicon Valley during the first boom, in the early 1990s. He knows this world and the people who inhabit it. In an interview, he called modern technology workers “Stepford wives.”

The situation — a team of computer nerds living in a house together and trying to launch a digital product — allows the ensemble cast to flourish, particularly Erlich Bachman, the old-school dot-com millionaire who owns the house and 10 percent of everything created there. He’s like a fat, hipster Mr. Roper, and it’s a breakthrough role for stand-up comedian TJ Miller. Martin Starr’s Gilfoyle, the Satanist coder, might be what Butthead looks like all grown up. And “The Office” alumni Zach Woods plays the neurotic MBA to the hilt.

But at the end of its first season, “Silicon Valley” has problems: Actor Christopher Evan Welch, who plays eccentric, Jobs-ian internet billionaire Peter Gregory, died in December.

It doesn’t get much more real than that.