“Minimum Viable Product”
When I caught the premier of Mike Judge’s new HBO series Silicon Valley at SXSW last month, I said it was one of “the most promising plot driven comedies to hit HBO in ages” and after watching the pilot debut on tv last night, I’d like to correct that statement: Silicon Valley is one of the most promising plot driven comedies to hit any network in ages.
A spiritual successor to Judge’s Office Space, Silicon Valley is set in our modern app-driven era, but it’s not the tech nerd hook or Judge and companies’ comedy chops that makes it such a standout, it’s the show’s devotion to character and narrative development. Even though the end of Breaking Bad has seemingly allowed a new golden age of tv comedy to blossom and thus given Silicon Valley significant competition, the show is set up better than most to bridge the divide between the bleak dramas devoted to the hubris of men with oversized ambitions and ensemble workplace sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Like Breaking Bad, Silicon Valley focuses on a seemingly meek man who has suddenly discovered he has made a product that people will viciously fight to possess– in this case it happens to be programmer named Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and a home cooked bit of proprietary software called Pied Piper instead of some home cooked blue crystal.
The pilot episode reveals Richard as a nervous cog in the machine that is Hooli, a vague tech giant with the Google-esque motto “We can only achieve greatness once we’ve achieved goodness.” As is the case with many Judge protagonists, Richard is painfully aware of how monotonous and pointless his work life is, but in place of the zen-like need to do nothing that represented the pinnacle of ambition in Office Space, Richard believes that he doesn’t have to be a “Hooli lifer” and he’s eager to escape that world. Silicon Valley gets some comedy mileage out of Richard’s awkwardness, as well as his friends’ awkwardness, but the show is surprisingly sympathetic towards its main ensemble. Even the somewhat clueless Erlich Bachman (TJ Miller), who runs the “incubator” Richard and his crew live in, is treated with a basic warmth whose cruder traits are balanced by his fundamental need to act like a slovenly dad to the slightly younger nerds living under his roof.
The series’ main plot is put into motion when the Pied Piper software Richard has been working catches the eye of a Hooli lackey (Zach Woods), who notices some bullying “brogrammers” playing with it and swiftly realizes that the compression algorithm Pied Piper uses to scan songs to see if they infringe on copyrights could have greater applications. That brings Richard to the office of Hooli head honcho Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), where he’s treated to a tremendous but condescending buy out offer but not before eccentric anti-college tech billionaire Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch) calls him up with a counter offer that gives him less money but far more control.
Unlike The Big Bang Theory, another sitcom about professional nerds being awkward, Silicon Valley genuinely cares about its characters and the world they inhabit; the show is full of tech slang and geeky references, but they develop organically, providing additional flavor but also illustrating how intelligence has in some ways held these characters back socially. One benefit of catching the pilot a second time is that it enabled me to drink in more of the world of Silicon Valley and listen in more closely on the subtle humor between the show’s more direct gags and jokes, which bodes well for the series’ replayability. At SXSW we were treated to the first three episodes, and the show has a great trajectory, but this second viewing of the pilot reconfirmed for me how well-developed these characters are from the start, and how great the chemistry between the cast is.
Silicon Valley’s greatest weakness at the moment is the relative lack of diversity on the show, which is particularly disappointing given the excellent job the show’s peer Brooklyn Nine-Nine has done. This point was brought up during the Q&A at SXSW, when an audience member questioned the low percentage of female characters and while the cast and writers rightfully pointed out the lack of diversity in the real tech world, it would be to Silicon Valley’s advantage to take a more progressive stance. The later episodes do build up the lone female character Monica (Amanda Crew), and even in the pilot she’s portrayed as the only well-adjusted character in the series, while also remaining intelligent and savvy.
Even with that caveat, Silicon Valley is a unique comedic work that treats its subject seriously and isn’t afraid to balance out its humor with an engaging narrative. Like a less scummy Social Network, Silicon Valley does an excellent job shedding an honest light on the tech world we all enjoy the riches of without necessarily understanding.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover