There’s no surer sign that a subculture has entered the mainstream than when it ends up on a TV show, and over the last few years the startup scene has crossed the threshold. We’ve seen a deplorable Bravo reality show and a comedy from Amazon, but nothing’s reached beyond easy jokes or lowest common denominator appeal. Given the track record, it’s easy to be wary of Mike Judge and HBO’s new show Silicon Valley — but the creator of Office Space and Beavis and Butt-head gets it completely right, resulting in an extremely funny show that will appeal both to broad audiences and the tech world insiders it’s so adept at mocking.
Richard (an awkwardly charming Thomas Middleditch) lives with several friends in a hacker hostel run by dotcom millionaire Erlich (T.J. Miller, in a hilarious breakout performance). Richard’s dream is to build a truly terrible music site named Pied Piper, but a pair of feuding tech billionaires discover that the compression algorithm he’s using is a potential goldmine. A bidding war ensues, and Richard has to decide whether to go for the $10 million acquisition or build his own company with his housemates.
Its satiric bite is aimed at the tech elite
Right off the bat the show reaches for the low-hanging fruit you’d expect, and there’s a lot to pick from. Richard and his friends can’t talk to girls. Brogrammers give them a hard time. Twitter and Instagram get egregious name-checks, while Grindr and other apps are used as joke fodder. Within the first three minutes Silicon Valley racks up an Eric Schmidt cameo and an old-school Steve Ballmer in-joke — and that’s just scratching the surface.
They’re the kind of gags that work on their own, but play even better if you know what they’re referencing. However, Judge and co-creators John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky know that approach only goes so far. Silicon Valley has bite, and what it’s really interested in is satirizing the startup scene elite and the hypocrisy of its titans. The fictional company Hooli is a thinly veiled riff on Google, complete with a sprawling campus and its own version of "don’t be evil" (CEO Gavin Belson intones, "We can only achieve greatness, if first we achieve goodness."). No matter how goofy Richard and his buddies are, nobody is more peculiar than investor Peter Gregory, played by the late Christopher Evan Welch. In one episode, Gregory takes the stage at his charity’s "Orgy of Caring" bacchanal to give a painfully awkward speech that makes the worst Bill Gates presentation look downright Jobsian.
Not that the party attendees care, of course. They just cheer him on before Flo Rida takes the stage, because in Silicon Valley nobody outside of Richard and his gang (and the audience, of course) realize how ridiculous the entire situation really is. It’s Mike Judge doing what he does best: honing in on specific details and ratcheting up the absurdity, but it often feels like he doesn’t have to go that far. It’s already funny because it’s true.
A mix of insider jokes and broad comic appeal
What binds the first round of episodes together, and makes the case for a series with some real longevity, is the affection the show has for its characters. Richard’s is a true coming of age story as he learns to assert himself in a world of showboating alpha males, and the dynamics between the friends provides room for some surprisingly earnest thoughts on friendship. Of course, this is a comedy above all else, and there’s plenty of both highbrow and lowbrow humor to go around; Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks) in particular owns every scene he’s in as a "LaVeyan Satanist with theistic tendencies."
It’s a great mix — a little bit insider, a little bit broad appeal, all filtered through the kind of workplace dynamics and relationships that people from all walks of life can relate to. With such a broad setup there are plenty of places the show can go from here, but in many ways Silicon Valley has already passed the most important threshold of all. It’s the first show about the startup scene that’s actually good.
Silicon Valley premieres this Sunday, April 6th. All images courtesy of HBO.