Last night's "Veep" episode said more about technology than all of HBO's "Silicon Valley"
HBO's "Veep" just beat sister show "Silicon Valley" at its own game.
But with more and more money and influence moving West to the Bay Area, "Silicon Valley" misses some key opportunities to comment on the socioeconomic and political ramifications of this monumental power-shift. Too often, the show is content to attack easy targets with low-brow humor instead of truly "punching up" at the new masters of the universe.
"Veep," on the other hand, the political comedy that airs every Sunday immediately after "Silicon Valley," is never one to pull punches when it comes to the rich and powerful. That's why so many were excited to hear its protagonist, the sociopathic yet brutally honest Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), would spend a whole episode in Palo Alto visiting with the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley. While "Veep" regularly exposes the hypocrisy and absurdity behind Washington power plays, last night's episode argues that tech folks, despite their hippie ethos, are often just as cynical and selfishly-motivated as their DC counterparts (though they do curse a lot less).
The episode begins with Meyer, who last week announced her candidacy for President, arriving in Palo Alto to curry favor among deep-pocketed tech CEOs. Her first stop is a social network called Clovis run by the cherubic 26-year-old CEO Craig Jurgenson who is clearly inspired by Mark Zuckerberg (it's pronounced Cray-eg not Craig, Meyer is repeatedly reminded).
The first thing that shocks Meyer's crew is how young everybody is. "Poor kids," says Mike, the Vice President's middle-aged communications director. "They don't realize they're all going to be executed by the time they're thirty." Then there's Meyer's delusional take on it: "You shouldn't make your first million until you're in your thirties. That's what Andrew and I did and it kept us completely grounded." Right. There may be a disconnect between old Washington money and new Silicon Valley money, but both groups have a lot more in common than they do with us normal people whose lives they affect everyday.
As the headquarters tour continues, all the stereotypes of startup offices are on display: Snack bars, ping-pong, foosball, and LEGO blocks. Meyer's reaction to all the toys is possibly a subtle jab at Yahoo's Marissa Mayer who's been accused of dissing working mothers: "Oh, how wonderful. Child-care is a huge part of my campaign." To which Clovis' CFO Melissa responds, "Oh no, these are LEGOs. Craig believes that LEGOs are an important part of creative thought."
Then in comes Craig: Unlike most fictionalized depictions of billionaire techie wunderkinds, Craig is not some social leper. He is, however, just as capable of manipulation and bullying as the power-players in Washington (and just as capable of hypocrisy).
For example, Meyer asks Craig to remove a particularly nasty viral video about her from the Clovis homepage. "Guys, you're not asking me to pull content," Craig says, citing high-minded ethical standards and an apolitical attitude. "I don't follow politics." Then minutes later, Craig becomes extremely political, requesting a dialogue on a "repatriation tax that just stops so much innovation." Clovis, you see, is "post-tax." How progressive. In return for tax breaks, Clovis pledges 50,000 tablets to Meyer's school tablet initiative.
Tablets are nice, but Meyer can't help but feel like she's been played as she paces around Clovis HQ fuming to her senior strategist, Kent: "I gotta go to the bathroom. They have a bathroom here or do they put their turds up in the cloud?"
While Meyer struggles with a "toilet from space," a new viral video breaks alleging that Meyer's presidential opponent Danny Chung had tortured Iraqis during the first Gulf War. (The story turns out to be pure speculation). With that in mind, Kent sees an opening as he interfaces with Clovis' CFO, Melissa, on the tax issue:
"The public is interested in tax relief for tech firms. But they're still deciding."
In turn, Melissa responds, "There's a lot of interest in the Chung torture story. The public may decide to put it on the Clovis front page after all." In one simple exchange, "Veep" shows how the democratization of the Web can be corrupted as easily as the democratization of the United States.
"I do admire the power of the public," Kent sneers.
"Aren't they magnificent?" Melissa says.
As the worlds of tech and politics continue to collide, it's not surprising that it took a political show like "Veep" to expose and satirize the true hypocrisy at the heart of Silicon Valley. While HBO's "Silicon Valley" makes some clever jabs at the expense of its subjects, it never gets below the surface to discuss how corruption and misdeeds at tech firms fit into the larger power structures of the United States.
It doesn't hurt that "Veep" is a crushingly cynical TV series that treats all its characters, whether they're Republican or Democrat, politician or tech CEO, with suspicion. And while not everybody in Silicon Valley or Washington has ill-intentions (I hope), sometimes it takes a little blanket skepticism to spot the bad guys.