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Loaded reverses Silicon Valley’s failure formula, and embraces the comedy side of startups

Loaded reverses Silicon Valley’s failure formula, and embraces the comedy side of startups


What happens when the app makers get rich

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Photo by Colin Hutton / CH4 / AMC

It’s easy to watch the British comedy Loaded and immediately compare it to HBO’s biting satire Silicon Valley. Both feature a group of four adult men working in the tech industry and maneuvering through the complexities of running a company, while engaging in ludicrous antics borne from their immaturity and deep character flaws. But the similarities pretty much end there — and that’s what makes Loaded a more refreshing, funny take on success and the ambitions of tech workers everywhere.

On Loaded, London mobile game company Idle Thumbs has just hit the big time, with a generous acquisition offer from a vague, insidious-sounding American corporation called Northlock. Suddenly, the startup’s four co-founders are millionaires, having turned a mobile game called Cat Factory into a life-changing payout.

‘Loaded’ is about four British app makers who get filthy rich off a cat game

It’s a crafty setup. Unlike the arcane compression technology that underlines Pied Piper, the fictional startup in Silicon Valley, mobile games are universal. The app economy, and its excess of money-printing chart-toppers, is an accessible narrative device for turning man-children into millionaires. Even tech-illiterate viewers have probably at least heard of Candy Crush, or played a round of Angry Birds way back when. Loaded is what happens when the creators behind one of those hit apps are self-indulgent, bad with money, and prone to petty, impulsive behavior.  

In many ways, Loaded is anti-Silicon Valley. HBO’s take on tech has, over the last four seasons, revolved around an increasingly elaborate cycle of failure. The protagonists chase success, coming tantalizingly close to a victory before having it snatched away at the last moment. Silicon Valley builds much of its comedy from the boom and bust of these fast-moving plot arcs. And creators Mike Judge and Alex Berg decided long ago that they weren’t interested in telling anything but an underdog story about hapless dreamers forever foiling their own plans.

Photo by Colin Hutton / CH4 / AMC

Loaded, on the other hand, drops success in its characters’ laps in the first minute of episode 1. The series’s opening scene features Josh Connors, Cat Factory’s  awkward, curmudgeonly head designer, repeatedly checking his overdrawn bank account over the phone. The fourth automated reply spits back a balance of £14 million. Suddenly, Josh and his co-founders are 1 percenters.

The remainder of the pilot details all the absurd ways Josh and his best friend Leon, along with fellow co-founders Ewan and Watto, begin adjusting to their new lifestyles. Josh takes his ex-girlfriend to a fancy lunch, where she rips off the portion of the wine menu listing the prices. Well-dressed, pompous Leon buys a Ferrari and pays a barbershop quartet to go around singing insults to all the venture capitalists who refused to back Cat Factory. Ewan, the timid, oft-forgotten co-founder, accidentally gives out £14,000 bonuses to every employee in an attempt to win their affection, while Watto, a recovering alcoholic and the group’s ideas man, buys a yacht to fend off accusations he stole intellectual property from a former friend. All four ultimately move into a lavish mansion together, where they ride around on miniature motorbikes.

‘Loaded’ drops success in its characters’ laps in the first minute of episode 1

On the surface, the show isn’t saying much that’s new. Loaded, originally produced for Channel 4 in the UK and picked up by AMC in the US, is based on the Israeli series Mesudarim. Its message is transparent: money doesn’t solve all problems, and in some cases, it only makes things worse. Josh can’t win back his ex-girlfriend by showering her with lavish gifts, and Leon is still just as ostentatious (even more so, it seems) now that he’s a millionaire. Ewan still lacks confidence, and Watto can’t escape his past by replacing booze with a boat.

But Loaded succeeds in the subtler commentary it has on modern life, wealth, and the areas we as a society have decided to consider valuable. In one scene in episode 2, Leon’s former teacher Calvin, whom Leon is parading around in his new helicopter to prove a point, marvels at Idle Thumbs’ lavish office space and shelf of industry awards. “What’s so impressive to me is you can make so much money out of something so… no offense, banal,” he says. “Because no disrespect, hardly Salisbury Cathedral.” Leon, prickled by the lack of respect, suggests he could buy the early thousand-year-old Anglican church. Unfortunately for him, he’s not that rich.

Tech companies are great for providing us with distractions for our idle time

Loaded’s gags are somewhat unoriginal, but they work within this context. The tech industry has turned thousands of people into millionaires, giving them lavish lifestyles and recognition. And a lucky (and hardworking) few have become billionaires, modern men and women of industry and lasting renown. But save for the most transformational and influential companies — the Googles, Facebooks, and Amazons of the world — few tech companies are actually having a positive impact on how we live. Despite wanting to “change the world,” as we so often hear, few entrepreneurs or startups are actively doing so. Many more are simply giving us distractions to fill our idle time, one selfie filter, mobile game, or ad-serving mechanism at a time.

Loaded may not have the steam to keep its plot going for four or five seasons, but even as a more short-lived exercise, it’s a smart, funny portrait of modern life. It feels like there’s a new Cat Factory being made and marketed every day, alongside an eye-popping check cut to acquire a successful startup or invest in a new one. What Loaded makes clear is that this money, immense in its magnitude, is just going to buy some jerk’s new Ferrari or an $800 bottle of wine. It won’t necessarily make those people happy. And although this sounds like sour grapes, that kind of money probably wouldn’t make you or me happy either.

Loaded airs at Monday nights 10PM ET on AMC.