The other day in this space I was jawing on about TV comedies. I was saying that there’s a current batch of unfunny, phony-baloney comedies on the air right now.
They’re on the networks, both U.S. and Canadian. Over on cable, it turns out, there’s a different phenomenon thriving. Sour comedy. Acrid articulations of awkwardness. Sharp observations of the general unpleasantness of working life in jobs that many people think of as cool.
These shows succeed because, mainly, we live in skeptical times, exhausted by endless avalanches of celebrity news coverage and resentful of the speed at which the digital age unfolds. Not another narcissistic celeb, please. Not another news item about some kid inventing an app that makes our existing communication technology old and slow.
Doll & Em (Wednesday, HBO Canada, 10 p.m.) is a peculiar bit of drollery about L.A., fame, showbiz and self-absorption. Two women who know a bit about all of that cooked it up, and they play the lead roles, as versions of themselves.
The Em is actress Emily Mortimer. On the series (a short-run batch of episodes with two airing tonight, but you’ll find all of it on demand), Mortimer is enjoying life as a mid-level movie and TV star in Los Angeles when she gets a call from her best friend Dolly Wells. She’s known Dolly (Wells is also an actress, best known over here for Bridget Jones’s Diary) since they were kids and Dolly’s just broken up with her long-time boyfriend. Emily brings Dolly to L.A. and appoints her as her personal assistant.
This leads to some low-key but funny silliness as Dolly tries to negotiate L.A. literally and figuratively – she’s spooked by the traffic and horrified by the entitlement she finds in showbiz. As much as the show attempts to establish that the friendship between two grown-up women can survive any amount of social and romantic disasters, it also establishes that fame and money can make an old friend into an appalling person. No sooner has Emily seemed kind to Dolly than she’s getting snippy about how, exactly, she wants her latte delivered every morning. Then she swoops in on a man Dolly is interested in.
There’s a lot of improvisation in Doll & Em and it shows – the scenes can shift awkwardly, but this artless quality benefits it. It’s the sort of meandering comedy that, for a while, mystifies you. As you’re unsure why you keep watching, you realize there’s a deadly intent. And that intent is the exposure of self-worship. Everyone is vain, mean and rude – even the real stars playing versions of themselves, including Susan Sarandon and John Cusack.
Silicon Valley (starts Sunday, HBO Canada, 10 p.m.) is another kettle of sourness. And much more substantial. The work of Mike Judge (Office Space, King of the Hill), it is set in the recent past among the nerdy tech wizards and millionaires who are, to much of the world, heroic figures.
The main character is Richard (Thomas Middleditch, from The Office) who toils for a Google-like company called Hooli. He comes up with a “compression algorithm” that helps musicians search for music copyright data. What he doesn’t realize is that his invention has countess possibilities if used for finance and other money-making tasks. As soon as others realize the power of his invention, everyone wants a piece of it and a piece of him. There’s one stinging scene in which a mogul offers him $100,000 for his work and, in seconds, the bid spirals to $3-million.
While Richard is, in theory, the sympathetic character here, neither he nor any of the characters is likeable or in touch with reality. Clueless, vicious and boorish, everyone in this high-tech world is a jerk. Mike Judge, who worked in Silicon Valley before becoming a writer, assesses this universe not so much with rueful glee as with a certain level of contempt.
There are sublime performances here. Particularly outstanding is T.J. Miller as Erlich, who runs an incubator for tech ideas and is, under the surface of his casual nerdiness, a megalomaniac ready to explode with greed. There are no safe places in this comedy. Everybody from the shy kids in sneakers and hoodies to the rich, laid-back geniuses are mocked with lip-smacking relish. Silicon Valley is like Big Bang Theory from hell.
It’s also very funny, and delightfully so. Our delight resides in the savagery of the satire. Really, most of us would rather not hear another story about some kid who became a billionaire because he invented a silly smartphone game or made it easier to post selfies on the Internet.
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