After the pilot episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley, I was out. While the idea of Mike Judge skewering the beta male and brogrammer culture of Silicon Valley seemed rich with the potential for satire, that first episode felt broad. It seemed like it was attempting at once to sell a wide range of archetypes trying to make it rich off of startup culture, while shackling us to the ever-increasing awkwardness and anxiety of gifted programmer Richard (Thomas Middleditch). The show was talking a lot but not really saying anything about its subject, as if Office Space had somehow become caught on a loop of Lumbergh jokes and stopped there.
Don’t worry, everyone, I’m complaining a lot up front because by the end of its eight episodes, Silicon Valley becomes as incisive, smart, and funny as Judge’s masterpiece, Office Space.
In the pilot, Richard’s discovery that he’s accidentally created an algorithm that can rapidly compress data, a bit of software puts him in between tech giant rivals Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) and Gavin Belson (Matt Ross). Belson offers to buy the algorithm outright for $10 million while Gregory offers only a $200,000 stake, but with the chance to grow Richard’s code into a billion dollar business. Richard takes the investment, kind of sort of drafts his programmer housemates into forming the company Pied Piper with him, creating the backbone of the series.
Initially, Richard’s a hard character to get behind – passive in the extreme, self-doubting, dominated by stronger personalities. It takes later episodes to realize what strong work Middleditch is doing here, creating this hole where Richard’s personality should be, allowing his interactions with the characters around him to let us see that this kid has really got something.
By the time we’ve gotten to hang around the sheltered Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), acerbic Satanist Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), and 10% stakeholder/would-be guru Erlich (T.J. Miller), we’ve gotten to know Richard and the show has found its theme. It’s about the unique flavor of creativity in the tech sector that’s one part genius, another part borderline personality disorder, and a third part spite that drives the Valley. It’s a testosterone-rich, sexually awkward, and desperate field where you can go broke with a great product.
Judge and his talented cast of performers pull apart the many ways Silicon Valley can destroy you or make you rich, that constant clawing to be the next big thing while sitting on a likely huge bubble that could burst any day now. It’s about communicating in the clunky, shared language of programmers as it gets co-opted by marketing (seriously, you guys, the cloud is a big deal).
Richard is just really good at code, we learn. He’s not great at much of anything else. Compulsive climber Erlich knows all of the right buzzwords but seems to have no practical skills beyond showmanship. When you look at the older men, Belson and Gregory (who we learn were once best friends), you wonder what Judge has in store for Richard and Erlich.
Where the pilot was broad, the series works so well because of the specifics later in the season: how Erlich would rather spend $10,000 on a piece of garage door art rather than formulate a business plan, or when Richard realizes that Big Head is a nice but unskilled guy who’s been able to coast on their friendship, or the way you can kind of get rich just by failing hard enough.
But really, it’s the two-part TechCrunch arc which ends the season that solidifies why I can’t wait for the series to return next year, as we see teams of industry hopefuls pitching (and failing) with their concepts. I love that Judge is still able to juggle the “real” and the absolutely absurd aspects of work and working, how he can get a plausible-sounding, flashy presentation for Belson’s stolen compression technology on (complete with a Shakira performance) next to one inventor’s potentially lethal microwave personal heating system (per one of the judges “No one will ever want to use that).
The final scene of this season offers us a little bit of setup for the next: everyone knows that Pied Piper works and it’s going to be huge. And that’s maybe the worst possible thing for Richard.