When details about HBO’s new 30-minute comedy “Silicon Valley” began to leak, some billed it as the “‘Entourage’ of Silicon Valley.” This naturally made tech insiders want to shove pencils in their eyes rather than watch the world they love get filtered through a film of Vincent Chase-grade hedonism. And why would they? Hollywood has a spotty record of documenting Silicon Valley faithfully, from the well-crafted yet factually-challenged “Social Network” to the total shitshow that was Bravo’s “Start Ups: Silicon Valley.” Many worried that HBO’s new series would glamorize the cash, excess and bro-ed out culture of Silicon Valley rather than find drama and humor in the realities of building a company. I even wrote a fake script envisioning the worst ways the show could live up to its “‘Entourage’ of Silicon Valley” moniker.
From the first scene of the pilot, it seemed like the Valley’s worst fears were realized. The show opens on Kid Rock performing some immaculately-awful cock-rock anthem (which sounds suspiciously like Jane Addiction’s “Entourage” theme song) amid flashing lights and explosions. Silicon Valley’s just one big party where the rap-rock and shrimp shots flow all night, right?
Not quite. As the camera pans back, we see hardly anybody’s watching and no one’s having fun. In fact, characters almost never have fun on “Silicon Valley,” or else they’re faking it. This is less the “Entourage of Silicon Valley” and more the “anti-Entourage.”
Just because the characters aren’t enjoying themselves, however, that doesn’t mean the audience can’t. With “Silicon Valley,” which premieres on HBO this Sunday at 10 PM ET, creator Mike Judge has once again conjured up a group of funny, likable every-men (yes, mostly men; more on that later) through which to observe the absurdity of modern worklife. It’s essentially Judge’s “Office Space,” only it trades in the corporate trappings of TPS reports and cubicles for Minimum Viable Products and pitch decks.
In this sense, the show isn’t really “about” Silicon Valley; it merely uses the Bay Area as a setting to telegraph themes about working America (illusions of freedom, the art of bullshit, corporate vs. personal identity) that have always interested Judge. But while it may not be some defining commentary on the current state of technology startups in 2014, tech workers and observers will appreciate that, at least when compared to Hollywood’s other attempts to capture Silicon Valley, it gets the details right.
“Silicon Valley” focuses on a group of young programmers living in an incubator house owned by Erlich (T.J. Miller), a washed-up founder who cashed out early and wears T-Shirts that say “I Know H.T.M.L. (How to Meet Ladies).” One of the programmers, Richard (Thomas Middleditch), builds a music search engine that lets creators easily spot copyright infringement from all over the web — a good idea but one that gets lost in the fickle Silicon Valley hype cycle.
That is until Hooli, a giant Google-esque tech firm where Richard works, discovers that the app runs a lossless compression algorithm that by itself is a clever piece of technology — one worth $10 million to Hooli, apparently. Meanwhile, Richard gets a counter-offer from the college-hating, island-building Peter Gregory (a clear analogue for Peter Thiel) to let him keep the company in return for a $200,000 seed check and a small stake in the firm. The stress of the decision triggers a panic attack and Richard is sent to a clinic. There, the doctor tells Richard he recently saw a patient who shot himself in the head because he turned down a million dollar buy-out to start his own company. Or did he take the money and not start his own company? The doctor can’t remember.
Enamored with the prospect of building something he can call his own, Richard ultimately turns down Hooli’s offer and follows his founder-cult dreams. He rounds out the team with the other members of the house including washed-up Erlich, an ace programmer named Dinesh (Portlandia’s Kumail Nanjiani) a nutty anti-government database expert (“Freaks and Geeks”‘s Martin Starr), and a young financial guru played by “Veep”‘s broomstick of a human Zach Woods.
Anyone who’s started their own company will appreciate the episodes that follow, as Richard and his team go through the technical and financial headaches of startup life. Judge risks alienating the norms by eschewing glamor and glitz, but it should come as no surprise that the maker of “Office Space” is able to pull a great deal of insight and humor out of the characters’ relatively mundane lives. The tech workers populating “Silicon Valley” may have more to strive for than the workers of “Office Space”‘s Initech, but that doesn’t make their day-to-day lives any more exciting. There’s plenty of existential dread to go around, even at the center of the tech revolution.
One complaint lobbed at “Silicon Valley” is that the show doesn’t engage much with the societal ills facing the Bay Area community and the tech world at large. Judge never shows us evidence of poverty nor do the characters discuss urban plight beyond a couple references to the city’s absurdly high rent. There are barely any women in the show, and only one who see working in venture capital or technology.
Viewers can take this two ways: One is that Judge punts on these issues, either because he’s afraid of alienating tech viewers who don’t think these problems are worth discussing, or because he doesn’t think this kind of social commentary would mesh with the lightly humorous vibe of the show.
Another take is that, by largely ignoring anyone who isn’t a male tech worker, Judge wants to fully capture the insular nature of this sub-culture. On “The Sopranos,” David Chase almost never showed us the lives of anyone who wasn’t a white Italian-American. But the absence of these voices was deafening, underscoring how little Tony and his goons understood about the world outside of their little fiefdom. It’s possible that “Silicon Valley” aims to accomplish a similar feat, though after five episodes it’s difficult to say how serious Judge is about this brand of social commentary.
“Silicon Valley” may not skewer the tech world as ruthlessly as some would hope, but that’s because the show is about something larger than Silicon Valley. Like “Office Space,” “Silicon Valley” is about work: The assholes, bullies, and bullshit that fall on our shoulders everyday, but also the friends and colleagues that help us avoid becoming the thing we hate. And while it may not tell tech folks anything they didn’t already know about Silicon Valley, sometimes holding up a mirror to the absurdity is enough.