Written by John Altschuler, Dave Krinskey, & Mike Judge
Directed by Mike Judge
Originally aired April 6, 2014
Following King of the Hill’s epic 13 year run and the short lived The Goode Family, Mike Judge’s latest undertaking reunites his formidable writing team and transports them to the playground of contemporary American madness: Silicon Valley. While Washington currently has its hands full with House of Cards and Veep and New York is thoroughly tapped out by the stuff satires are made of (bank bailouts, failed social uprisings, government reforms focused on calorie consumption), California has never looked more enticing for established and on-the-rise comedic writers/directors looking for a seemingly endless supply of material. While shows like Maron and Workaholics capture the inanity of trying to be anything at all in SoCal, the slacker capital of the world, Silicon Valley moves north where, like a determined younger brother, the region of Palo Alto strives to convince itself that work can be rewarding and fun. Of course, you need only possess a passing awareness of his film and TV work to know where that idea sits with Mike Judge.
From the outset, Silicon Valley is essentially the second act of The Social Network played for impressively focused gags. The series captures the Gold Rush atmosphere of the current tech boom through a dense population of programmers pouring all their energy into the development of apps in the hopes of selling their ideas to mega corporations such as the fictional Hooli where series protagonist Richard Hendrix works. Thomas Middleditch’s Hendrix takes Jesse Eisenberg’s remorselessly driven Zuckerberg and replaces him with an earnest, bumbling nerd, the kind that you could easily find getting shoved into a locker in any 80s teen comedy. He is joined by a posse of rejects ranging from the gratingly ingratiating to the simply ineffectual. Maron sidekick Josh Brener is on site as co-worker and roommate Big Head whose defining characteristic is his formidable eye roll. Kumail Najiani expands on his brief role as a numbers cruncher in the last season of Veep. And the man who practically invented the modern nerd, Martin Starr, is on hand as a Satanist with “some theistic tendencies.”
Rounding out this collection of well-cast misfits who possess a relatable awareness of the absurdity of their field is the army of zealots that carry the long invisible cloak of their figuratively nude rulers. Silicon Valley finds a great deal of humor in philanthropy as shameless self-promotion. While many of those in the Valley are brilliant technicians or inspiring businessmen, most either lost or never possessed a moral compass. The series is smart enough to have characters express their doubts as when an audience member at a TED talk calls out the education phobic tech titan Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch) for spreading ignorance. The show is rife with characters that believe in something so completely that they are utterly blinded by the absurdity of their convictions. And yet the pulse of Silicon Valley is found in existential doubt. After being offered $10 million for his app (which utilizes a “lossless compression algorithm,” if that means anything to you), Richard visits a doctor who provokes further anxiety by being unable to remember if, in a similar situation, another patient attempted to kill himself because he sold his idea or because he held on to it. One of the episode’s better moments, the doctor’s inability to provide helpful advice as well as his inappropriate light heartedness (not to mention his well-practiced pitch for an app that monitors patients for the symptoms of panic attacks), point to both the grimmest and most optimistic elements of the series. The logic of Richard’s refusal to sell his idea is equal parts nerd pride and Justin Timberlake’s parable from The Social Network about the guy who invented Victoria’s Secret. Divorced from a cultural context, success and failure are actually about trying and not trying. Though the companies that want you to buy their products tend to reduce success to materialism or at best “hard work” (a la Cadillac’s insufferable new ad campaign), the truth is that the “failure” most people are afraid of comes well after the personal success of defying the easy out. Furthermore, success as “the big payout,” the excuse to stop working and simply be, while eternally enticing has been proven empty so frequently that it’s amazing anyone still believes that money alone, without motivation or raison d’être, can bring about true happiness.
Judge is no stranger to the sadistically mundane dirge of corporate culture. His work suggests that he is deeply sympathetic with the suffocating tightness of the white collar. Silicon Valley seems eager to prove that even the coolest office is still an office, full of desperate parasites and bloated, callous managers. Which is refreshing and disheartening simultaneously. Judge seems to possess a certain conviction that the only person worth working for is yourself, a charge that likely seems impractical or perhaps even inconceivable to many. Richard’s “partner” Erlich (T.J. Miller) becomes the mouthpiece for Judge’s conviction in DIY at any level. Like so many others in Silicon Valley, Erlich sold his company for a quick buck that he then funneled back into the creation of an incubator, elevating himself to the tech industry’s version of a casting director. Yet in the episode’s least cheeky moment he admits, while slurping down raman, that he regrets his early exit. While Erlich was “successful” by definition, the intense incentive to produce the next “big thing,” the tides of which are predicated on the whims of a few stupidly rich, disingenuous egomaniacs, means that this type of success is fleeting at best.
On the whole, the series is a comedy that prefers to chew rather than really bite. Judge and company have clearly done their research and have the experience to know that calculated persistence is often more effective than an ambitious charge. They capture the technobabble of programmers, the apotheosis of billionaires and all the depravity and excess that Silicon Valley is famous for. They overcorrect this imbalance with a lead that is perhaps a little too squirmy and socially useless though I don’t doubt that the mania of money will test his resolve to keep his new company honest. Either way, Silicon Valley pits the cartoonishly vapid against the cartoonishly sincere to determine if there is any heart in computers.