Silicon Valley Has Its Small Screen Debut

There’s no denying we live in a golden age of American television – an era in which moving, funny, dramatic, powerful, meaningful stories unfold in Dickensian-serial nuggets of bold entertainment. Who needs a Hollywood movie when you’ve got endless hours of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, or Game of Thrones to watch?

And more than ever, television is the medium that defines and drives our culture. Only something as bracing as Walter White’s descent into evil could have you thinking and talking about the man day and night. Hence, why luminaries like Steven Soderbergh are leaving the movies in favor of serial entertainment.

Recent political sendups such as Veep and House of Cards are stand-ins for the real Washington, in the same way we now think of David Simon’s imagined Baltimore as the actual Charm City.  Today’s TV experience creates whole worlds unto themselves (Game of Thrones is an excellent but extreme example) and rejiggers how we think about, well, just about anything.

And it’s now Silicon Valley’s turn to get this treatment.

Last Sunday, HBO premiered Silicon Valley, a promising new show about the ins and outs of young, hoping-to-make-it-Zuckerberg-rich programmers, who all live in a ramshackle group house (or “incubator,” as one character unironically describes their domicile, a place where ramen is the main food group and hoodies the standard uniform).

The protagonist, Richard Hendricks, stumbles upon a new way to compress algorithms, thus setting off an absurd bidding war between two billionaire titans portrayed by Christopher Evan Welch and Matt Ross, the former more of the more Elon Musk-milieu, the other a hybrid of Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Richard decides to go with the Musk-type funder, installing himself as CEO of a fledgling startup that could be the next billion dollar tech venture. Emphasis on could. And he brings his motley crew of talented, but clearly insane, roommates along for the ride.

While the pilot was flat in some places, the show has obvious potential to be the next big HBO satire, one that comes to define a certain place at a certain time. Created by Mike Judge (who hilariously depicted the humiliating, emasculating experience of being a cog in corporate America with Office Space), Silicon Valley has the goods to make a superior, scathing critique of the tech elite: exceptional casting, witty dialogue, and situations and events based off real life that, really, just write themselves. With scenes taking place on a Google-type transit bus or in well-stocked, subsidized snack rooms, the writers seem confident that they’ve got the goods on the nation’s techies.

This new show has got the potential to be a gonzo Sand Hill Road parody, and I hope the writers and actors deliver. But this being a new satire in our glory days of television, Silicon Valley is going to have to step it up in order to be noticed and earn its enviable time slot between Game of Thrones and Veep. B or B- isn’t going to cut it on the premium network that gave us The Sopranos.

However, scenes in which our merry band of tech bros finds themselves at a lavish house party illustrate that the show is going the right way. When the billionaire party host gets up to scream into a microphone (just passed to him by Kid Rock, no less) that, “We’re making the world a better place…through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility!,” you know the series’ dialogue could possibly be terrific – and the messianic complexes most excellent.  

We will be occasionally blogging about Silicon Valley here at TechTank. Popular culture is important and we want to hear your takes on the show.

A few additional observations:

  • Speaking of messianic complexes, I was ever so delighted to see that Matt Ross was cast to play one of the self-important, delusional tech billionaires. Ross was utterly amazing as Alby Grant, the crazed, self-professed messiah of the fundamentalist Mormons on Big Love. He will add a lot to the show. And he kind of looks like Sean Parker!
  • And the same goes for Martin Starr. An alum of Freaks and Geeks, no one plays a nerd like him. He will be excellent supporting cast.
  • A number of reviews have complained about the lack of female characters. I personally don’t have an issue with this as Silicon Valley is a dude’s world, and let’s not airbrush that. I actually think that in some instances a lack of female presence makes for a powerful statement: look at Fight Club and True Detective. Both make strong statements about gender by erasing one side of the equation. I think this show will do the same. For now, the women are essentially PR consultants and helpmates. I sense this will change as the show proceeds. Let’s give them a break on this front.
  • Given the importance TV has on our culture, what about politics? As my fiancé thinks, if Silicon Valley takes off like it should, it has the potential to massively shape how Americans view this class of people. There’s a big primary between incumbent Mike Honda (D-CA), who currently represents Silicon Valley and its environs, and newcomer Ro Khanna, who’s locked up a number of impressive tech billionaire funders. The race is shaping up as a battle royale between established area Democrats and the newly rich tech elite. Could bad representations in Silicon Valley hurt either candidate? If you doubt pop culture’s impact on politics, just ask Sarah Palin about Tina Fey’s SNL impersonation on Palin’s approval ratings during the 2008 presidential.