Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Silicon Valley: “Minimum Viable Product”

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Mike Judge’s 1999 film Office Space, while not a success at the time it was initially released, has since grown into a cult classic thanks to its spot-on evisceration of the monotony of cubicle life. It took the frustration of the day-to-day and extended it to cartoonish levels, while at the same time keeping just enough of a foot in real life that the activity felt grounded. Even when Peter, Michael and Samir were taking a baseball bat to a printer in the middle of the field, it was a moment that resonated because there are a legion of office drones who would happily do the same. It understood keenly that so many of the rules the office world operates by are illogical, frustrating and at times ridiculous, but that so many people are conditioned to operate by those rules that the people who revolt are largely trapped in the system.

Now, 15 years later, Judge has translated this worldview to television with HBO’s Silicon Valley, a world that proves while the technology gets better and the profits get larger, people and systems are still as flawed and rattled as ever. The world of Silicon Valley is a bit less accessible than the world of Office Space, but it establishes the rhythms and tics of that world well enough in the early going that it makes it a place worth spending time in. And more importantly, the pilot is also focused in a way Office Space wasn’t, setting the stage for a rocky journey in the heart of Santa Clara Valley.

The protagonist of Silicon Valley is Richard Hendrix (Thomas Middleditch), operating in the belly of the beast as a low-level employee at Google-equivalent company Hooli. Richard lives at an “incubator” house with several other programmers, trying to develop their own breakout software or app. While Richard’s having no luck pitching his own program called “Pied Piper”—a software ostensibly designed to determine if music has copyright infringement—a few of his coworkers find the diamond in the rough when it turns out his data compression software operates beyond any existing boundaries. Faster than you can say “Pied Piper is a proprietary site,” Richard finds himself the subject of a bidding war between Hooli founder Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) and venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch): one offering a buyout, the other collaboration.

While some of the technological and business speak is obtuse in the early goings, the pilot does a good job of moving past that to set up the stakes of the conflict. Richard has something these two men want, and has to decide just how much control he wants to have over his creation—and rather than developing a gigantic ego over his creation’s potential, he’s entirely floored by the implications. The deer-in-headlights look on Middleditch’s face is the central image one takes away from “Minimum Viable Product,” the feeling that he’s opened a door he never expected to get through and that on the other side the floor is 95 percent ball bearings.

And this is a world it’s easy to be overwhelmed in, as Judge establishes the show’s heightened tone early by throwing us deep into the Hooli work campus and the grand parties these people attend. It’s not as extreme as the world of Idiocracy, but it’s also not a stretch to see how this universe could be the first step in that direction, as everyone in the Valley is a little disconnected from the outside world. Gavin’s motto for Hooli is that “we can only achieve greatness if we achieve goodness,” but there’s no conviction to any of his words—he’s more interested in musing over why all programmer groups look the same. Similarly, there’s plenty of emptiness when one of Richard’s peers who just sold a startup for $200 million says they’re making the world a better place “by constructing elegant hierarchies for massive code reuse and extendability,” undercut by the fact that he’s paid Kid Rock to give a concert to a wholly disinterested group of attendees. It’s not a malicious misdirect, rather a reflection of the impersonal disconnect that’s grown out of too much proximity to money and technology.

Where Silicon Valley truly excels is in its cast, all of whom show early promise to develop into strong and consistently funny characters. T.J. Miller as incubator owner Erlich Bachman is the most bombastic of the group, a start-up mogul who cashed out early and behaves like a mix of rock star and the Dude, expecting every word out his mouth to be treated as gospel. Kumail Nanjiani’s reserved Dinesh is as much the master of the deadpan reply here as he is on Portlandia, Josh Brener’s “Big Head” is the only one who makes Richard seem assertive by comparison, while Martin Starr is essentially playing the same role he did on Party Down but translating it well as his Gilfoyle explains his religion in the most condescending of tones (“I’m a LaVeyan Satanist with some theistic tendencies”). And going back to the Office Space comparison, The Office’s Zach Woods as Hooli manager Jared Dunn has a clipped and micromanaged manner of speaking that marks him as a possible successor to Gary Cole’s Bill Lumbergh.


And all of these characters get good material to play, as the writing is consistently sharp starting out. Judge co-created the show and wrote the pilot with King Of The Hill alums John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, and the three of them know how to create satisfying dialogue and one-liners. Be it Dinesh observing that activities always split along gender lines (“Every party in Silicon Valley ends up like a Hasidic wedding”), Erlich talking about how he owns shares in apps that locate erect nipples on women or men for anonymous sex in bathrooms, or even quick visual gags like the absurd narrowness of Peter’s car, “Minimum Viable Product” isn’t short on immediate laughs.

Most importantly, the pilot concludes by laying out a solid groundwork for the rest of the series: Richard decides not to sell out to Belson but accept Gregory’s offer to bankroll and consult on a company, and enlists Erlich and his roommates to run the company with him. My colleague Todd compared the show to Entourage in his initial review, but the ramshackle nature of its cast and their bottom-rung starting point bears more resemblance to fellow HBO comedies Bored To Death, Flight Of The Conchords and How To Make It In America. Yes, Richard and his friends may have just set themselves up as multimillionaires, but they’re a long way from reaching the lap of luxury and also don’t give the sense that they’re lucky, sharp or ready enough to pull it off. It’s a lofty goal, and while everyone looks hopeful there’s also the feeling there’s a lot of potential for disaster—and based on the pilot, whether or not they succeed or fail Silicon Valley is a show worth watching.


Stray observations:

  • Thoughts on the opening titles? I like them. SimCity-esque and full of recognizable companies (the Napster balloon bursting is a nice touch), with a hint of Better Off Ted in the font choices.
  • The question hanging over the series is how it will deal with the real-life death of Welch, who passed away last year while filming the first season. Judge has said it won’t affect the way the story progresses, but it’s something to consider going forward.
  • Most pleasant surprise of the pilot: Review’s Andy Daly popping up as Richard’s incredibly unhelpful doctor, who also has an app to pitch and cheerfully recalls a man in Richard’s position who tried to kill himself but can’t remember the decision that led to that place. “Whatever it was, it made him regret it so much that he shot himself! Now he’s blind. … Then his wife left him, because—yikes.” Daly’s a busy man this year, but he leaves enough of an impression that one hopes the other incubator residents will need medical attention this year.
  • Gavin’s law of programmers: there’s always a tall skinny white guy, a short skinny Asian guy, a fat guy with a ponytail, some guy with crazy facial hair, and an East Asian guy.
  • Dinesh, scouting Asperger’s dating sites: “Boy, is she on the spectrum! She can’t even make eye contact with the computer.”
  • Bachman, ranting at a prospective tenant who pitches “bit soup” with only 1s and 0s: “I need you thinking about apps, software, websites! This is Silicon Valley, not … Paris, Texas! … That’s where Campbell’s Soup is.”
  • “Oh god, the marketing team is having another bike meeting. Douchebags.”
  • “Let’s just think different. Don’t ‘think different,’ that’s Apple.”