By Jennifer Maerz
The opening scene of HBO’s new Mike Judge comedy, Silicon Valley sets the tone for this new and wickedly funny show. Kid Rock is wrapping up a performance on the stage of a newly minted tech millionaire mansion, when his song stops and the geeky crowd stands around in silence. After trying to rally enthusiasm from a demographic more attuned to the liquid shrimp appetizers than southern rock debauchery, Rock throws down the mic and stomps off, muttering, “Fuck these people.”
To be clear, the comedy, which premieres this Sunday night, isn’t a nasty takedown of everything tech, but it is a much needed dose of levity aimed at an industry known for self-righteousness, pomposity, and nerdy one-upmanship, all of which are targets for Judge’s sharpshooting humor. And Judge, no stranger to white collar humor (he’s the brains behind Office Space), relishes in both making you care about Silicon Valley power struggles and blasting the powers that be.
Silicon Valley revolves around Richard (Thomas Middleditch), who invents a powerful compression algorithm called Pied Piper (aka, “the Google of music” for copyrighted material) and suddenly finds himself in a bidding war between Hooli, a thinly-veiled Google, and an eccentric VC named Peter Gregory (a very deadpan Christopher Evan Welsh).
Richard is the Beaker the Muppet of the startup scene – he’s so anxious, bumbling, and googly-eyed, he could almost carry this comedy on his own. But his droll housemates are very funny too. Richard lives in an “incubator" – the home of a power-hungry, ex-programmer nobody named Erlich (T.J. Miller), populated by a Pakistani programmer named Dinesh (the brilliantly comic Kumail Nanjiani), a Satanist Canadian named Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), and a frail operations guy named Jared (Zach Woods). Richard’s best friend Big Head (Josh Brener) and Hooli’s megalomaniac leader Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) are the other comic players in the show.
Belson makes bombastic statements about the power of technology that sound painfully close to real life (a prime example: after proclaiming that “small is the new big,” in one episode, Belson adds, “If we can make video files smaller, we can make cancer smaller.”)
The series builds on the question of whether Richard will be able to bring Pied Piper to life before the evil Belson gets his product out first. But the answer is complicated, as Richard has no business sense (his Wikipedia search for “business plan” is an early example of the show's zippy visual punchlines) and multiple panic attacks. But he’s also smart – and so he has a Steve Jobs to his Steve Wozniak in the form of Erlich.
It’s tough for me to have a favorite character on this show, as each guy (and the show, like Silicon Valley itself, is mainly comprised of white men) opens himself up to ridicule. But I really love Erlich. He's Richard’s unlikely mentor and a bumbling idiot – the kind of guy who meditates after calling people assholes and gobbles psychedelics to brainstorm company names.
The empty ways the tech industry incorporates “mindful” and “spiritual” values is another running gag on the show, and one of my favorites. (Again, another relevant thread considering the recent backlash to the Wisdom 2.0 conference here). Erlich isn't the only offender, either. The biggest walking gag is Hooli’s Belson, whose “spiritual advisor” is nothing more than a yes man of Eastern decent. Belson makes bombastic statements about the power of technology that sound painfully close to real life (a prime example: after proclaiming that “small is the new big,” in one episode, Belson adds, “If we can make video files smaller, we can make cancer smaller.”) You could make a drinking game out of the number of times a character claims his product will be “game changing” or is “making the world a better place with [insert tech mumbo jumbo].”
There are some trickier issues in this show, race being the most obvious one. The only black and Latino characters on Silicon Valley are strippers, pimps, and ex-gang banger graffiti artists. But it seems Judge is attempting to make a statement with the near whiteness of his cast as a reflection of the region itself, and he twists the conversation around. All the anger about “illegal aliens” gets dumped on the Canadian character. And the tech savvy stripper uses Square, while the business-savvy graffiti artist demands stock options. The episode focused on race underscores how awkward it is for that issue to come up in Silicon Valley at all.
I’ve only watched the first five episodes of Silicon Valley, but I’m impressed with how many gags Judge packs into each half hour show. I'm also a fan of the way he includes inside jokes and insider references (to Pando Daily, TechCrunch, Scrum and Mass Effect 3) that include tech geeks in the laughs. After a year of witnessing anger at Silicon Valley that’s both wasted and deserved, it’s cathartic to watch a smart series where we can both laugh at the posturing and root for the underdogs in the industry.
Bonus Silicon Valley trivia for Bold Italic readers: Anil Margsahayam, who some of you might recognize from our underground dinner series with Stag Dining, has a cameo role on the show.