[This is a review of the Silicon Valley series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Mike Judge proved himself quite adept at skewering corporate culture with the 1999 film Office Space. Now, in his return to television, Judge has turned his acerbic eye to the anti-corporate-but-still-corporate culture of massive, zeitgeist-y multi-billion dollar tech companies and their cult-like followings in the decidedly sharp and witty HBO comedy Silicon Valley.
The series focuses on a group of young programmers who sort of fall backwards into the rapidly developing startup of their friend Richard (Thomas Middleditch) after it’s discovered that his music search site, known as Pied Piper, contains a compression algorithm that has two of the biggest icons in Silicon Valley in a sudden bidding war to obtain or be a part of the company Richard may or may not build around it. Middleditch is joined by a host of familiar faces such as T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, and Josh Brener, as members of the incubator run by Miller’s character, Erlich, a would-be Steve Jobs to Richard’s Steve Wozniak.
Judge’s knack for picking apart subcultures and pointing out their absurdities is on full display early on, as the series opens up at a private party being thrown by some recently-made-rich programmers where Kid Rock is, as Erlich notes, “the poorest guy” there. It’s a distinction that clearly proves money doesn’t necessarily prove one’s genius, and it certainly doesn’t fill one with a profound sense of humility. What Judge does, though, is similar to his approach in Office Space, wherein he pinpoints a particularly absurd notion and lingers on it, blowing it up and then repeats it over and over again, until the amplification of the ridiculous element serves to define the world in a very real, very relatable way. Judge has done this sort of thing time and again; it was seen in Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill, but it became most pronounced in films like the aforementioned Office Space and Idiocracy.
Silicon Valley blends the fast-paced, technologically competitive environment of the titular location with the often strange, practically unhinged, free-to-pursue-anything creative culture that can often define what it’s like to work at a startup. For those who haven’t worked at a startup before, just take a good look at Erlich’s den of programmers huddled around a table of monitors, or stopping for some mid-day cereal, and you’ll have pretty good idea of what goes on at one. On the other hand, just take a look at the excesses peppered about the fictional campus of tech giant Hooli – run by Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) – and you’ll have an equally good idea of how billions of dollars can fuel a company’s insane sense of self-importance.
The majority of the comedy’s superb satire comes from the repeated comments made by people like Gavin Belson and his immediate competitor, the aloof, possibly-somewhere-on-the Asperger’s-spectrum, Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), about making the world a better place. This honest and oft-repeated belief that something as benign and seemingly trivial as a compression algorithm will literally improve the lives of its users is such a dead-on portrayal of the ideology behind such a distinct subculture that it feels utterly present, precise, and yet gloriously exaggerated all at the same time.
What makes Silicon Valley work, though, is that its primary narrative is constructed around technology that doesn’t necessarily require the audience to determine its appeal to them on an individual level. Pied Piper – or at least the algorithm behind it – is broad in its potential application, but by keeping its appeal more on the business side of things, the series alleviates the concern of whether or not the audience will accept it, while also increasing the level of satire it can wring from such a concept.
There is a scene in the premiere where Erlich listens to pitches by young programmers trying to join his incubator, wherein he sneers at the idea of any concept being consumer-facing. That divide between a consumer-facing or business-facing application is at the forefront of the series early on, as Judge works to ground the series’ in that very specific reality, rather than simply lampooning a subculture from afar. By maintaining that Silicon Valley produces tremendous, useful innovations in technology, while also being a place filled with people who earnestly say things like, “that 10 minutes is just incredible,” when discussing what it’s like to be in the company of an icon like Gavin Belson, the series will likely appeal to audiences in and out of the technology industry.
However, it’s not all about algorithms, technology, ridiculously thin cars, and pointing out the weird cliques programmers seem to form. At its heart, Silicon Valley takes a skewed look at the pressures associated with finding rapid success, and how money too often becomes the determining factor of a person’s level of achievement, rather than the effort and the outcome of building something.
For his part, Middleditch superbly conveys the kind of anxiety sudden success can bring, but he also excels in his depiction of the social outcast that’s normally the symbolic character in a group of otherwise “cool” people. That depiction is a part of the satire, as here, the symbolic character in Erlich’s incubator is the one whose skills with a computer are inferior to those around him. In that sense, Judge, Middleditch and the rest of the cast are working to create a familiar comedy dynamic that’s set within a unique ensemble of characters.
And that uniqueness deepens as the series progresses, shaping Silicon Valley into a wickedly funny, character-driven satire that may not make the world a better place, but it will definitely improve your Sunday nights.
Silicon Valley continues next Sunday with ‘Articles of Incorporation’ @10pm on HBO.