I badly wanted to love HBO’s Silicon Valley. I really did.
When the pilot premiered back in April, it was turkey-stuffed incredible promise. The show features a typical-of-the-scene central protagonist: a young, socially inadequate, and probably technically brilliant man played effectively by Thomas Middleditch. The episode engineered the beginnings of a narrative arc in the Joseph Campbell tradition: the hero creates (perhaps accidentally) a piece of technology with tremendous potential, is forced to make a big decision, and embarks upon a journey towards corporate apotheosis. In shades, this is a narrative arc that we’ve come to associate with major tech icons from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg. And for the increasing number of souls who gaze longingly at the robin blue skies of Northern California and dream, quietly but surely, of some greatness, the show’s potential as a viewing experience was undoubtedly sexy. Here is an opportunity to live vicariously through a character that’s set undergo the trials of high stakes, power politics, lost friendship, human greed—it’s delicious, Games of Thrones-ian type stuff, only with less eyeball-gouging and more suits. Further sweetening the deal was the prospect of Mike Judge’s fierce satirical vision that brought us the legendary ‘90s corporate culture critique of Office Space.
By the end of the pilot, I was positively salivating.
But by the end of this first season, Silicon Valley didn’t just fall short of its potential—it also ended up just being a shockingly lazy comedy. The jokes were shallow and painfully reliant on adolescent humor (like this excruciatingly played out “you’re gay for my code” gag) and the show’s efforts at racial humor only barely skirts above the quality of finance bros, much to the misfortune of the very intelligent and very talented Kumail Nanjiani whose deadpan humor you can see much more effectively in IFC’s Portlandia. And speaking of Nanjiani, Silicon Valley also egregiously squanders the considerable talents of Middleditch (an almost-SNL cast member), rising player TJ Miller, and Freaks and Geeks/Apatow alum Martin Starr. When the show steps up to task as a piece of satire, it only pursued low-hanging fruit, exaggeratedly playing out but never honestly digging into Silicon Valley’s ridiculous nouveau riche opulence, inflated sense of self, and techno-utopianism. Alas, even when Mike Judge’s show attempts to grapple with something more complex like the industry’s gender problem, it never goes beyond a superficial punch line. (“Normally the tech world is 2% women. The next three days, 15%.” “It’s a god damn meat market.” And it was never heard about again.)
By the time the credits rolled at the end of the season finale, I was morose. But this isn’t just about Silicon Valley and what it could have been. We need a solid, intelligent TV show about the tech industry now more than ever.
If an individual piece of media, be it literary fiction or prime time cable, is an opportunity for a consumer to experience and reflect upon the society that created it, then mass-consumed media is a way for large swathes of society to come together in pursuit of that reflection. And there is a lot to think about: whether we like or not, the current configuration of the tech industry is defining the economic, cultural, political, and social landscape of the decades to come. It’s this strange multi-tentacled gargantuan entity backboned by a few mega-corporations (and as such, a few key individuals—the “boy-kings”) that’s exerting rapidly increasing amounts of influence over the way we’re living our lives, and there’s something deeply confusing about the whole thing. Should we, for instance, be comfortable with the fact that the new barons are mostly technically gifted man-children? Should we be alright with an economic reality that involves so much money and so much saccharine hyper-optimism being thrown at stupid, childish products? How can SnapChat possibly be valued at $3 billion? (Seriously tho)
Tough and relevant questions, all.
I often rely on television shows to better make sense of the world. Breaking Bad allowed me make a little more sense about masculinity, the indifference of the universe, and the human desire to mean something. The West Wing was a template to grapple with idealism, politics, and just doing your job well. The Wire, the bureaucratic cage and the scars of society. Mad Men, America. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, life and the world. It’s a weird way of relating, but then again, I am deeply skeptical about my ability to cognitively conceptualize the world all by myself. In my mind, TV shows, by virtue of being a product of economic and creative collaboration, are vetted pieces of the society reflecting back on itself. And while I don’t expect that very many other people interact with TV in the exact way I do, I do believe that the broader viewing public do participate in milder forms of these processes.
Thus, that the tech industry hasn’t been effectively treated by television suggests that we lack a mass outlet to collectively evaluate and understand the broader social consequences of the Valley. The industry has been effectively featured as a one-off or secondary concern, as in the case of, respectively, The Good Wife (which continues to do stellar work critiquing the surveillance infrastructure) and Veep (“Kindergarten for Cyberbrats” remains a stunningly meaningful burn). But nothing currently exists at the level of The Social Network, David Fincher’s 2010 film about the origins of Facebook penned by Aaron Sorkin and based on the contentious non-fiction book The Accidental Billionaires. The movie was, of course, famously (and perhaps rightfully) criticized as being an inaccurate portrayal of events, but it was a tremendous work that served a higher purpose than mere documentation: to be a meditation on what happens when an individual gains power and some amount of importance. And it is absolutely important for such a meditation to be played out as a sustained, seasons-long TV show—where an individual film is a static artifact representing the ideas of its time, a TV show is an extended conversation that reflects and reacts dynamically to the world around it.
Silicon Valley could have been that TV show, and still has the potential to be in later seasons. But right now, there’s still a void and it needs to be filled quick.
But hope is not all lost. There are two hot prospects for the future that just may have what it takes to turn things around.
The first is AMC’s new boardroom drama, Halt and Catch Fire, which supposedly follows a fictionalized version of Compaq’s assault on IBM for dominance over personal home computing. The pilot premiered on Sunday, and while it shows some promise (in perhaps the same way Silicon Valley once showed promise), the establishing beats were too dependent on clichés to warrant much confidence. There’s the brilliant hotshot salesman, played by Lee Pace, with a complicated past. There’s the brilliant but closed-off engineer with a failed past. There’s the brilliant but troubled punk-rock engineer girl who doesn’t really have a past, but she makes steamy with the hotshot salesman. Yikes. Still, the project has Breaking Bad alum Melissa Bernstein in the executive producer seat, and the nature of a show can’t necessarily be discerned from the seed of its pilot, so hope remains for this drama to blossom into something substantial.
The second is the upcoming adaptation of Hatching Twitter, NY Times tech journalist Nick Bilton’s gripping telling of Twitter’s tumultuous birth. Not much is currently known about the production, but with a portrayal of the mercurial Jack Dorsey, one of the company’s co-founders, on the cards, there’s great potential for really gripping television.
Despite the flash-fizzle-fade of Silicon Valley, there’s still much to be optimistic about. We’re living in what many have called the Golden Age of Television (a strangely disputed claim, but with phenomenal shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, True Detective, Game of Thrones, Louie, and Orange is the New Black stacked so closely together in recent years, it’s really hard to mount a counter-argument), and it may well only be a matter of time before we get the tech industry drama we truly need.
And the sooner that happens, the sooner we can start participating in the mass reflection upon the realities of the tech industry we’ve been wanting to have for years now.