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REVIEW: How to Make It In HBO’s Silicon Valley

6 minute read

Silicon Valley, the new software-business comedy (premieres April 6), is hardly the HBO series with the most or raunchiest profanity; that title is still, and may always be, held by Deadwood. But it is probably the HBO show to which the word “asshole” is most important.

As used by the show’s titans and would-be Zuckerbergs, the word has myriad meanings to rival the Eskimo lexicon for “snow.” It’s a term of contempt: Radiohead, we are told, are “assholes” for the band’s positions on file-sharing. A programmer more focused on writing great code than monetizing it–a “Steve Wozniak” rather than a “Steve Jobs” in the show’s parlance–has “crawled up his own asshole.” A company without strong leadership suffers “an asshole vacuum.” But above all, in a business that values software over soft power, the word is practically an honorific: “That’s why he’s a billionaire,” a character says of an investor. “He knows how and when to be an asshole.”

Silicon Valley is the funniest out-of-the-box pay cable comedy in a good while. (Veep, which returns the same night for its third season, is in the same league, but it took a good year to get there.) But its real strength is that it’s built on an idea that, however crude, is universal. Do you need to be an asshole to make it in this business? And if so: which kind?

Those are the questions facing programmer Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) when a sudden business opportunity hits him like an Angry Bird. By day, Richard works on the Ikea-chic campus of software giant Hooli. On his own time, he’s bunking and coding in the “Hacker Hostel,” a rental house turned “startup incubator” run by the sketchy Erlich (T.J. Miller). In the process of building Pied Piper, an elegant but unsellable music-sharing service, he almost inadvertently creates a data-compression algorithm that could revolutionize the business. Hooli’s founder Gavin Belson (Big Love’s Matt Ross, in a deliciously arrogant turn) offers to buy him out for $10 million; Gavin’s eccentric VC rival, Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch, who died during the series’ filming), offers a smaller stake that would let Richard keep the company. Behind Door #1: certain riches and possible crushing regret. Behind Door #2: the chance to be a Zuckerberg or a has-been.

Silicon Valley comes from Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill)–who did a stint as an engineer in the Valley in the late ‘80s–along with co-creators John Altschuler and Dave Krinskey. It has more in common with Judge’s movies than his TV projects. The white-collar humor echoes his cult hit Office Space; its sprawling offices and the garish new-money parties have the calculated, flat ugliness of Idiocracy, which used a deliberate anti-aesthetic to portray a big-boxed future in which taste was dead. Its California landscapes are as plain as Enlightened and Looking’s are honeyed and luminous. Judge (who directs half the episodes) gives us the promised land as beige box, designed for functionality.

Richard is the kind of guy Beavis and Butt-Head would laugh at and Hank Hill would drop-kick out of his propane store, a mop-topped brain attached to a few pipe cleaners and a hoodie. But the terrific Middleditch makes him more than an asocial Poindexter–he’s fidgety and unconfident, but also empathetic and principled. Pied Piper to him is not just a chance at billions but a chance to be alternative to Gavin (who employs a guru to tell him that hating his enemies is “a tool for great change”). Richard wants to bring the world insanely great things without driving everyone around him insane. But he’ll need to handle himself in a shark tank where he suddenly has the smell of money on him, and he’ll need to learn to manage his motley startup crew, including sardonic coder Dinesh (Kumail Nanjani), acerbic Satanist Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), and Richard’s sweet but untalented best friend Big Head (Josh Brener).

You’ll notice all the male names there. Hardware-wise, the show is a definite dongle-fest; the only significant recurring female character in the early going is Peter’s head of operations Monica (Amanda Crew). But its very, very male world presents a very, very different take on masculinity from Entourage, whose bros sampled from an endless sushi-conveyor-belt of hot Hollywood women. Silicon Valley‘s is a culture of man-children, misfits, and macho “brogrammers”; among the apps one entrepreneur creates is NipAlert, for detecting–well, just what you’d think, reminiscent of the actual sexist gag app TitStare unveiled at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference last year. The women aren’t subservient so much as they’re absent, or isolated. Noting the separation between the sexes at a lavish party, Dinesh notes, “Every party in Silicon Valley ends up like a Hasidic wedding.”

The show starts sharp and only gets richer (in an encouraging sign, the pilot was the weakest of five episodes I saw). And it has ideas beyond just being timely. This Valley has lived through several generations in time-lapse. (The opening titles show a landscape of offices and logos rising and falling, as in SimCity–Facebook going up, Napster going down.) It has sudden, vast power, and it knows it. And it sometimes wears that power arrogantly and ridiculously, or both at once, as when Peter gives a sneering TED Talk dismissing college as “snake oil,” then drives off in an electric car so absurdly narrow it can slip between two parked ones.

But ridiculous power is power nonetheless, and part of Silicon Valley’s strength is in showing how the locus of cultural cred has shifted. The big showbiz dreams of Vincent Chase and pals in Entourage look puny beside the empire-building of Hooli. That’s cemented in the opening scene, where Kid Rock entertains a listless crowd at the party for a barely postpubescent host whose start-up just sold to Google for over $200 million. Kid Rock, Erlich says, is just about the poorest guy in the room. To paraphrase The Social Network’s Sean Parker, being a millionaire isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? It’s Richard’s job to figure that out for himself.

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