'Silicon Valley' episode 1: Too silly to satirize?

Silicon Valley

There’s a lot to like about Silicon Valley, the comedy series that premiered Sunday night on HBO and is currently free to watch on YouTube. Series creator Mike Judge brings the same absurdist social commentary vibe that served him so well in the cult film Office Space. And let’s face it—tech-industry culture can be so particularly strange that satirizing it is like shooting fish in a barrel.

The show opens with Kid Rock wrapping up a performance on stage, only for a wide shot to reveal that he’s playing for a couple of dozen people, most of whom aren’t paying him any attention. It’s an exaggeration, sure, but I’ve seen big-name rock acts playing to disinterested crowds of computer programmers plenty of times, and the show nails just how ridiculous it feels.

The industry’s unnecessary displays of wealth and inflated sense of self-importance are at the heart of what Silicon Valley skewers, so is it any wonder that some actual tech billionaires are uncomfortable about the whole thing?

I know I laughed out loud at the show’s portrayal of a tech executive who claims that he’s “making the world a better place” (complete with a Photoshopped picture of the executive in Africa) when in fact his company is just “constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility.” Programmers making life easier for other programmers is more or less like curing malaria, right? The joke’s so good, the episode recycles it—later the Google-like company Hooli is described as “transforming the world as we know it through minimal message-oriented transport layers.”

There’s also a great, Ballmer-esque moment, when a startup CEO shouts “I love our integrated multiplatform functionality! Yeah!” into a microphone. “Now here’s my good friend Kid Rock!” Nobody believes anything the guy says—but the guy might be so deluded that he believes it himself. (He’s celebrating because his company just got bought out by Google for $200 million. I’d wager that if Judge was shooting this same episode today, he’d make it a cool $10 billion. $200 million is chump change for 2014’s big tech players.)

Since Sunday’s episode, “Minimum Viable Product,” is the show’s premiere, it spends a lot of time introducing us to our cast of characters. At the center is Richard (Thomas Middleditch), a shy programmer who works at Hooli during the day and is creating his own website at night. Richard is living in a “tech incubator” run by Ehrilich Bachman (T.J. Miller), who sold his company for millions and now wanders around wearing How To Meet Ladies t-shirts. Richard’s pals are Big Head (Josh Brener), Gilfoyle (the delightful Martin Starr, who you might remember from Freaks and Geeks), and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani).

Turns out that Richard’s website, Pied Piper, has a terrible elevator pitch but some great underlying programming. Thus begins the bidding war between two tech billionaires. Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), who runs Hooli and consults with a “spiritual adviser,” wants to buy the whole company out from under Richard. Meanwhile, tech visionary Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) wants to buy five percent of the company and become Richard’s mentor.

Belson is a scary, Larry Ellison-like figure who orders his flocks of flunkies around with ease. “I love what you did,” he tells Richard, and then pivots to a subordinate: “Fill him in, Jerry.” Gregory, on the other hand, is a loopy Silicon Valley visionary who gives a TED Talk about getting everyone to drop out of college.

In its bright, broad strokes and embrace of geeky characters, the show’s tone actually reminds me of a parade of nerdy ’80s movies, like WarGames and Real Genius, and Weird Science. Real Genius is one of my favorite movies, so that’s a compliment.

The Girls of Silicon Valley

The women at the party are seen, but not heard.

However, sometimes I have to wonder if the show’s satirizing the tech industry’s failings or just falling into the same traps. Of the show’s nine main characters, there’s only one woman—Monica (Amanda Crew), Peter Gregory’s assistant. She’s a good character—in fact, Monica’s really the first one to realize the value of Richard’s Pied Piper algorithm—but she’s also only one of two female characters who speak in the entire episode.

Early on in the episode, one of the characters jokes that Silicon Valley parties divide along gender lines in such extreme fashion that they’re more like “hasidic weddings.” As that joke’s falling flat, the characters walk past a single table full of attractive, twentysomething women in black dresses. They’re scenery. Later, there’s a funnier joke—about a programmer creating a breast-focused app because “that’s what people want”—so the show clearly wants to comment on the adolescent attitudes of people in the industry. But the lack of female characters in the show, Monica excepted, is troubling.

At the end of the episode, Richard recruits his pals to join him in founding his new startup. It’s a legendary, inspiring moment, but the only words he can come up with are other company’s marketing slogans. “Let’s not be like other companies—let’s think different,” he attempts. “Let’s just do it. Let’s make it happen.”

Richard doesn’t want to fall into the same traps as every other Silicon Valley start-up, but even his first instincts are unoriginal. You can see where the story is probably going to go from here over the seven remaining episodes.

Mike Judge has his work cut out for him. The target of “Silicon Valley’s” satire is so over-the-top itself that it’s almost impossible for the jokes to be too ridiculous. In fact, it’s more likely that Judge’s wildest dreams for tech excess will not be able to keep up with the actual excesses of the industry. In a world where Google is building self-driving robots and trying to cure death while Facebook spends billions of dollars on virtual-reality goggles, how broad is too broad?

This story, "'Silicon Valley' episode 1: Too silly to satirize?" was originally published by TechHive.

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