On HBO's Silicon Valley, fiction isn't stranger than truth

The second season is still content to merely mimic the excess of the tech world

23

How do you satirize the already absurd? That is the challenge for HBO’s Silicon Valley, which kicks off its second season this Sunday. The show continues to follow young startup Pied Piper as it tries to raise venture capital funding, build its first product, and avoid being crushed by a vindictive corporate giant. But it’s chosen to set its stage in a world whose reality is already over-the-top: a startup industry that seasoned tech investors are calling a bubble, with valuations for young “pre-revenue” startups reaching into the billions faster than ever before.

The first season was enjoyable enough, and was at its best when mixing raunchy humor with its classic innovator narrative of inspiration and disruption. Creator Mike Judge is the brains behind Beavis and Butthead and Idiocracy, so the show often comes across as the The Social Network with more dick jokes.

HBO sent out the first three episodes of season two for review, and my main complaint so far is that the series doesn’t try harder to one-up its inspiration. People in San Francisco are actually riding private buses with stocked juice bars. There is a class of coders who never leave their multi-million dollar condos, while an army of contract workers delivers their food, washes their laundry, and walks their dogs. You can even hire a virtual butler, Alfred, to help you manage all your various digital servants. In short, there is plenty of fertile ground for some amazing comedy to build upon, not merely mimic.

Season two picks up with the Pied Piper gang after their win at TechCrunch Disrupt. They're now out to raise a series A, a startup’s first big round of institutional funding, and it’s the hot deal in town. The venture firms trying to win Pied Piper over keep upping their offers — $5 million, $10 million, $20 million at a $100 million valuation. Sounds crazy, except, well, we’ve been seeing a lot of series A rounds that are much bigger in real life. The average series A for a Y Combinator startup was $10 million in 2014. Clinkle raised $25 million. Those don’t even come close to reaching the record size for recent startup investments.

Silicon Valley nails the mannerisms of venture capitalists, from their inspirational argot to their khakis and reclaimed walnut wood furniture. And it dives deep into intrigue between young entrepreneurs and their prospective backers. But I’m not really sure how it expects the average viewer to understand rapid fire dialogue about ratchet clauses and participating preferred, pro rata rights and convertible debt. And term sheets and legal battles rarely make for big laughs.

It’s not just the amount of money sloshing around that Silicon Valley tries to mine for comedy, of course, but the kind of ideas that are getting funded. Pied Piper, we are told, is a breakthrough data compression algorithm, an honest to goodness innovation that could change the way mobile and cloud computing works. But it’s kind of boring and incomprehensible to the average person. To show us the loony ideas that do get money in the Valley these days, the show introduces Bro, an app that lets you text the word "Bro" to another user. It's acknowledged this was inspired by the success of the real life Yo, a sort of aneurysm that briefly convulsed the world of mobile apps. Except on the show, Bro can barely raise $50,000 on Kickstarter, ostensibly because it’s such a terrible idea. In real life, Yo raised $1.5 million from professional investors and inspired an extended defense from no less than Marc Andreessen.

The show is similarly unimaginative when it comes to the mega rich titans of tech. When a billionaire CEO gets on stage at a Recode conference and says that the treatment of the 1 percent is much like the discrimination against the Jews by the Nazis, someone unfamiliar with SV goings-on might think to themselves, man, that Mike Judge is really willing to push the boundaries of taste for a laugh. But again, the show isn’t exaggerating. A fabulously wealthy and famous Silicon Valley billionaire who travels around in an underwater airplane actually did compare the treatment of the super rich to the Holocaust. That should be the starting point for a bigger, more cutting joke about how out of touch these CEOs are, not the exact same punchline.

The best part of the new season is Chris Diamantopoulos’ Russ Hanneman, a brash angel investor modeled on Mark Cuban. His desire to fund the next big thing is matched only by his ability to undercut the company he’s backing. The jolt of energy Diamantopoulos brings to his scenes got me excited to keep watching what up until then had been kind of lackluster. Plus, somebody had to find a way to immortalize the disruptively bad taste in shirts that Chris Sacca has made famous.

If the rest of the season is able to sufficiently ramp up the insanity, excess and middle school humor, it will be worth watching, both for people who keep up with the tech world and those who don’t. It’s the Spinal Tap law of satire: if you’re going to make fun of something as already ridiculous as Silicon Valley (or heavy metal), turn it up to 11.