In the grand tradition of Mike Judge projects, HBO’s new comedy, Silicon Valley, is a bit messy, a bit shambling, and often very funny. It’s also at once a critique and embrace of the idea of corporate culture, examining how scruffy groups of dudes (because this show is almost all dudes) are gradually homogenized and turned into the sorts of tech geniuses that are easier to sell to the press. There’s a bit in the fourth episode where the five guys at the series’ center pose for their official company photo, and it’s funny not so much for how it plays off the group dynamics, but for how it satirizes something one wouldn’t even think worth satirizing. It feels weirdly like a tech-world Entourage—and that’s meant as more of a compliment than it seems.
At the center of Silicon Valley is Thomas Middleditch’s Richard, a shy, geeky programmer at the tech company Hooli, which is a pitch-perfect send-up of every nebulous tech monolith that sees its work as somehow equivalent to saving the world. Richard has a dream of starting up his own app, a mostly pointless thing that will allow those who hold the copyright to a song to search the net to figure out who might be abusing that copyright. It’s the sort of dumb idea that’s easy to make fun of—since it solves a problem that isn’t really a problem—but buried in the middle of Richard’s code is something so potentially game-changing that it sets two billionaires against each other and eventually finds Richard heading up his own company, not without a little reluctance.
As always in a Judge project, the best thing about Silicon Valley are the bits of observational humor. The famed writer and director turned that eye on dumbass teenagers in Beavis & Butt-head, then on small-town Texans in King Of The Hill, and, along with co-creators (and former King Of The Hill writers) Dave Krinsky and John Altschuler, he’s come up with a gleeful take on the unexpected boom times that have hit the Bay Area. Though it’s difficult to say if the three writers have accurately captured the inner workings of tech companies, they’ve certainly presented the exterior of that world as it seems to those who know it mainly through press coverage. Everything is game to be satirized here: how boom town Palo Alto stacks the newly rich up against those who have less, the way that a big surge of investment capital doesn’t necessarily mean one has money right away, the lower-case letters in tech companies’ names, and the way that unchecked nerdery becomes just another kind of machismo.
Silicon Valley wouldn’t work, however, if it didn’t capture a very particular vibe that exists in the garages and homes where tech start-ups begin, the way that groups of friends start to break down into those who have ideas and talent, those who just have talent, and those who have neither. The series begins with Richard living in an “incubator” run by self-possessed pothead Erlich (T. J. Miller), a man who parlayed selling one start-up into eternal bragging rights and the ability to spend the rest of his life doing pretty much nothing. His roommates include best friend Bighead (Josh Brener), Pakistani immigrant and code warrior Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), and rancorous Satanist Guilfoyle (Martin Starr). The five men live in a kind of eternal college dorm-room atmosphere—until Richard’s idea hits big, and they’re suddenly all employed by him and forced to deal with the encroachment of corporate culture onto what they imagined as a “punk rock” kind of programming.
Judge has always captured perfectly the kinds of posturing that men do for each other, the ways that masculinity is often expressed via trying to be the best at something or know the most about a particular subject. For that reason, the scenes set in the incubator are usually the show’s best, especially as the arrival of business-minded Jared (Zach Woods) begins drawing lines between management—mostly Richard—and employees. They’re necessary lines, but they’re harder to deal with when they come between friends.
Judge and his co-creators are on shakier ground when it comes to their portrayal of the billionaires who make the town run with their infusion of capital. As the eccentric Peter Gregory, Christopher Evan Welch is able to make even some of his goofier bits (like an obsession with Burger King) play, but while Matt Ross is ready and willing to play as Gregory’s chief rival, he’s given much broader, sillier material, with the series beating into the ground one joke about how he really believes his meaningless tech products will help, say, starving people in Africa. The series understands the discrepancy that exists in companies that want to feed and clothe the world’s poorest citizens… but also want to suck up every bit of cash they can get their hands on. It just rarely does as much with that idea as it could. (Welch died during the filming of this season, and while he’s in all five episodes that HBO sent out, it’s difficult to imagine the program without him.)
Again, Silicon Valley has plenty in common with Entourage. Things tend to work out for its protagonists in unlikely fashion, and it’s usually on its best footing when examining the interplay among a group of guys in their 20s. The series has a terrific cast and solid stable of writers, as well as several directorial ringers (including Maggie Carey and Tricia Brock), but it can never quite overcome that missing tension. It’s almost too shaggy for its own good at times. And yet Entourage was pretty good for its first couple of years, at least when there still existed the possibility of Vincent Chase utterly failing, and what keeps Silicon Valley from that fate is that Richard still might completely bomb out. The victories here are small scale, and even when he achieves greatness—or, okay, slightly less mediocrity than usual—it often comes at the expense of his nice guy image. Silicon Valley posits that corporate culture and CEO assholes might be malignant strains on American culture, but it also suggests that in an environment where this much money is floating around, they’re an inevitability.