Review: Silicon Valley 1×1 (HBO)

Be nice to nerds

Silicon Valley

In the US: Sundays, 10pm, HBO
in the UK: Acquired by Sky Atlantic for summer 2014

Geeks and nerds are hard to do well. The natural instinct of US comedy writers – typically arts graduates who know next to nothing about science and technology – is to mock them mercilessly and hold them up to be objects of ridicule. Even when seemingly siding with nerds (cf Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science), writers still regard them as ‘the other’ and targets for the comedy more often than not – hapless losers who succeed despite their apparent social failings, unattractiveness, etc, rather than who have worthwhile character traits.

Look at Big Bang Theory, which supposedly is on the side of the geek, but which still gives all the nerds 1970s clothing and haircuts and has ‘normal’ people around to look down on them. Or at least that’s how it started (it’s improved a bit not a lot).

And in a lot of ways, HBO’s new comedy Silicon Valley is no different. Set inside a Silicon Valley ‘incubator’ – a collection of start-up businesses all under one roof being helped to become successful by a mentor – it’s a show that very precisely satirises the people, the working style, the business practices, the culture and pretty much everything else in California’s technology capital. Very precisely – having written about technology (as well as TV) for the best part of 20 years, a lot of it is very familiar to me, even if it is exaggerated.

But at the same time, this is a comedy from Mike Judge. Best known for the affectionate but teasing portrait of Texan family life that is King of the Hill, he’s also the progenitor of the much-loved cult movie Office Space, which did a fabulous job of mocking working life.

So although the geeks and nerds on display in the show are as much the butt of the humour as in any other show, not only is it quite affectionate mockery, no one escapes it. Best of all, it’s also very funny.

Here’s a trailer and if you liked that, you can watch the entire first (censored) episode, too (if you live in the US).

Plot
In the high-tech gold rush of modern Silicon Valley, the people most qualified to succeed are the least capable of handling success. Mike Judge (“Office Space,” “Beavis & Butthead,” “King of the Hill”) brings his irreverent brand of humor to HBO in the new comedy series SILICON VALLEY. Partially inspired by Judge’s own experiences as a Silicon Valley engineer in the late ‘80s, the show kicks off its eight-episode season this April.

Is it any good?
It’s not a slam dunk and if you have no interest in technology, you might be pushed to find a lot of the funny, but there’s enough going on that it’s well worth giving it a try.

The show itself isn’t amazingly well drawn. The characters are all largely just plot functions, stereotypes there to serve as the basis of jokes rather than real people. Of the cast, probably the only famous member is TJ Miller, who’s not exactly set the world alight with subtle performances on Carpoolers or The Goodwin Games, and although he’s better and smarter here, he’s not going to be winning any acting prizes.

Instead, the show is best first at showing how people with minimal social skills both socialise and deal with the need to socialise when influence is thrust upon them and then at focusing on some of the weirder aspects of Silicon Valley. Here the show draws a lot on Judge’s own experiences of working in Silicon Valley, so as well as ringing (almost) true, it’s a lot subtler and cleverer.

I’m not sure it’s 100% accessible, though. If you have the knowledge to, for example, recognise the Napster logo, and know how hexadecimal and angel investment and incubators work (or you’ve at least watched an episode of Dragons’ Den), you’re going to have a much better time of things since you’ll know what’s being referenced; otherwise, this might be a somewhat unfathomable show for you (cf BBC2’s W1A).

As well as some cracking lines of dialogue, the show has some great visual gags, too, some in the foreground, some in the background, so Silicon Valley is a show you have to keep your eye on at all times. And while Miller is the somewhat dominant character – reminiscent of Justin Timberlake’s in The Social Network – the other performances, particularly Thomas Middlemitch’s central role, are considerably better if smaller in delivery.

Although there are some women, the show does suffer from a lack of decent female roles and is perhaps more representative of the Silicon Valley of the 1980s that Judge knew in that respect. It’s clear he’s done some more research since then, but the show is somewhat dated in some respects.

Even so, it isn’t trying to skewer anyone and, above all, it’s funny, and that’s what counts.