This is hardly the first time that the tech world has been pilloried in one form or other. But in this post-Social Network world of ours, the hits are coming faster and funnier, including this fine new sitcom.
Conceived in part by former Beavis & Butthead/Office Space majordomo Mike Judge, Silicon Valley scores even more points by making the satire so specific and so damn sharp. It’s little wonder that in this first episode alone, Eric Schmidt of Google was willing to make a quick cameo. I’d like to think that’s because he sees a lot of himself in this show.
Silicon Valley is one of the few satires willing to show how the sausage is made with a startup, including every little stumbling block and wrong turn simply because it is damn hilarious. Like, for example, how this whole endeavor gets underway: a young, nervous developer named Richard is balancing his day job at a Google-like tech firm named Hooli with working on Pied Piper, a search engine that allows users to see if their music is infringing on existing copyrights. It’s a goofy and pretty useless service, but buried within is an algorithm that could allow people to cut the size of any file in half.
This discovery sets off a bidding war between a venture capitalist named Peter Gregory (played by the late Christopher Evan Welch), and the guru of Hooli, Gavin Belson (HBO alum Matt Ross). Here’s where some of the real fun of the show comes in. These two character actors brilliantly ape the pie-eyed enthusiasm, cutthroat business sense, and mentally unhinged qualities of these tech boom billionaires.
Belson is especially weird and oily, with his penchant for those creepy toe shoes and making sure he gets 30 minutes a day with his spiritual advisor. Gregory is just weird, unable to look anyone in the eye for more than a second and talking in a tone-deaf singsong manner. You can try and connect their mannerisms to a real-life founder, but they are really amalgams of the tics and absurdities of that whole region.
Faced with this dilemma of taking the easy money from Hooli ($10 million dollars) or a $200,000 stake from Gregory (as well as giving up 5% of the company), Richard reacts the way anyone would: he panics, runs, and throws up in a trash can. With some encouragement by Monica, one of Gregory’s associates—who tracks Richard down using the GPS data on his smartphone (Richard: “That’s creepy.” Monica: “You don’t know the half of it. Neither does Congress…”), he takes the smaller outlay of cash with the hope of building something potentially huge.
Everything surrounding this central plot captures the mood of the current tech industry as perfectly as Judge did with Office Space’s cube farms and business doublespeak. Hooli’s headquarters is a candy-colored playground with the marketing team zipping by while doing a “bike meeting,” and where Richard and his best friend (only ever referred to as Big Head) are shuttled via a Hooli bus. And the house where Richard lives is an incubator, run by bloviating Steve Jobs-worshipping Erlich (the brilliantly funny T.J. Miller), that houses a gaggle of developers rent-free in exchange for 10% of their future endeavors. The cramped quarters are seemingly meant to hide the fact that Erlich is a millionaire while also trying to “give back” to the startup upstarts. The rest of Richard’s team are perfectly cast, as well, driven by erstwhile comic Kumail Nanjiani and former Freaks & Geeks cast member Martin Starr as bickering programmers. Both perfectly capture the sarcastic air of indifference mixed with awful social skills.
Moreover, like every series or film that Mike Judge has had a hand in, Silicon Valley makes us root for these little guys even as we’re laughing at their foibles and petty disagreements. They are everymen with the skills to potentially net them billions of dollars. The ultimate modern American dream expressed with Asperger’s-like mannerisms and wrapped up in a hoodie and a t-shirt.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.