Silicon Valley is Mike Judge’s incisive, hilarious return-to-form [TV Recap: season 1, episode 1]

Nearly everyone who sees the Game Of Thrones title sequence praises it for its sheer stylistic audacity, introducing the epic scope of the show with a booming theme song and sweeping summary of the world’s geography. Silicon Valley, Mike Judge’s return to television, accomplishes the same feat with a 10-second title sequence. The camera pans across a SimCity-esque landscape of Silicon Valley, dotted by corporate headquarters for Twitter, HP, and Oracle. Napster pops up as a hot air balloon, and then quickly descends out of sight. AOL topples off a building that becomes Facebook. It’s the proliferation of the tech companies throughout the south peninsula and Santa Clara Valley in microcosm, representing the present moment in the corporate climate where companies pop up and disappear, with major projects existing in a digital realm.

Amidst tons of shows set in New York, Los Angeles, and a recently resurgent Chicago, there aren’t a lot of programs that accurately reflect a place I know from years of experience. This is all to say that Silicon Valley reflects an environment I recognize from growing up in the Bay Area, from seeing friends stay close to home during college, from seeing friends from middle and high school end up as cogs in the giant tech cults of personality or at any of the “buzzed-about” startups that represent everything people who live outside of northern California find obnoxious about the Bay Area. (The latest is this one. It’s a fantastic idea, and based on what the founders of Google once tried to build. But that doesn’t mean the conversation around the press coverage isn’t obnoxious as hell.)

Like Office Space, which catalogued the pathetic existence of cogs in the Y2K machine populating mercilessly boring industrial parks, Silicon Valley is at least in part based on Mike Judge’s experience as a programmer in the late 1980’s at Parallax. Richard Hendrix (Thomas Middleditch) is a college dropout developer who lives in a house owned by Erlich Bachmann (T.J. Miller), a grungy and entirely oblivious stoner with disgusting facial hair who sold an app to Frontier Airlines, and now runs a startup incubator where all the other guys lives (he owns a slice of each project). Bighead (Josh Brener), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) round out the house as the other programmers, plugging away at various ideas. But Richard has the best: Pied Piper, a music application with a clumsy interface (it’s designed to search for whether a new song violates an existing copyright by scanning other songs) that hides within its code an extremely valuable compression and search algorithm. (Look, I’m not a computer science guy, I only took AP Computer Science in high school, so let’s agree to a little leeway on the technical descriptions.)

There’s a lot of verisimilitude here, but that’s not the point of Silicon Valley entirely. It’s not a hit job. What it gets right is the atmosphere of the South Bay technological hub. Shows like The Good Wife or Law & Order rip elements of cases from the headlines in order to depict current technology through lawsuits or sensationalized murder cases. And with only a few rare exceptions, these depictions feel stale poorly copied from the real world. Silicon Valley doesn’t have that problem. For the first time in as long as I can remember, here is a show that not only gets the regional attitude right—within a predominant subculture of big tech company employees and aspiring developers—but also the biting, incisive satire directed at that community. Instead of a paltry piece of Google propaganda like The Internship, this is a show intent on sticking a pin in the over-inflated ego balloon of the Bay Area. And it’s hard to argue with the way it goes over.

Dinesh and Gilfoyle are crass but socially limited rivals (Dinesh browses a dating site specifically for people who land on the spectrum), while Erlich frequently touts his abilities with the ladies or the benefits of his cushy living without realizing how vacuous he seems in comparison to his more-driven charges. These guys live in the land of ever-inflating rent prices, and work in an industry where cash gets thrown around willy-nilly at small pieces of tech deemed to have a valuable application on back-end. And the worst part (or the best for comedic value) is everyone going around saying they’re doing good for the world. The party everyone attends at the outset of the pilot is a stark example of how uncomfortable these kinds of people are when they achieve financial success: hiring a thoroughly annoyed Kid Rock to headline for a sparsely populated backyard of schmoozing tech dignitaries, with the head of the company humblebragging about meeting Obama, in between praising “integrated multi-platform functionality” and claiming, “we’re making the world a better place – through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility.”

The strangest and most intriguing character is billionaire angel investor Peter Gregory, who definitely falls somewhere on the scale. Though he comes across as fiercely intelligent when standing up to a heckler during his TED talk. That side of the story presents Gregory as a great innovator out looking for people who aren’t going to lock themselves into a system of organized higher education he believes is choking true technological advancement. The heckler spouts out bullshit like “the true value of a college education is intangible,” and once refuted, retreats to calling Gregory a fascist.

But on the other side of the coin, Gregory is cripplingly inept in one-to-one social interactions. When Richard first pitches him the idea for PiedPiper, he baits Gregory into talking to him by threatening to go back to college. He’s a guy who praises Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison for dropping out of college, but the big company in Judge’s show is Hooli, which is quite clearly based on Google, a company where all three major players got some type of postgraduate degree.

The polar opposite to Gregory’s odd-but-personal approach is Gavin Belson, Chief Innovative Officer of Hooli, the Google stand-in Richard and Bighead both work for to support their after-hours startup incubator dreams. Belson is an amalgam of every insipid stereotype of the tech executive cult of personality: he has a spiritual advisor, wears toe shoes, says things like “Hooli is about people,” but knows so little about the low-level anonymous employees in his empire that he initially botches introducing himself to Richard. When Jared pitches Richard on selling his work to Hooli, first he references “Gavin’s commitment to social justice,” before lying though his teeth about “personal commitment to the people at Hooli. It’s such an accurate hypocrisy to the heavy-handed, self-important bullshit spouted constantly throughout the area that I was shaking with laughter.

A walk-and-talk between middle manager Jared and Gavin is the moment where the curtain gets pulled back on the big machine of tech cults like Google and others that have been a boon to the Bay Area economy, but have been roundly criticized in recent years. Gavin dismisses Richard’s idea as “consumer-facing,” because the innocent fledgling developers all want to make something that people interact with—you know, “changing the world.” But the valuable innovation buried in all the clumsy UI could be invaluable when plucked out and turned into something “business-facing.” In contrast to the video that plays on Hooli shuttle buses, which ape Apple keynote video vibes, Belson isn’t the guy who simply wants to do good in the world. He’s a bitter, egotistical man hell-bent on destroying a rival at all costs, and doesn’t care at all about a guy who he doesn’t recognize. All he wants is the product under his corporate umbrella. But hey—Gregory is just asking for a smaller piece of the pie to start with. He’s in it for the money too.

Richard’s choice is between taking $10 million from Hooli for his idea, or allow Peter Gregory to buy a small stake in exchange for seed money, in the hope that the company could be lucrative in the future. The choice puts so much stress on Richard he ends up in a doctor’s office (the delightful Andy Daly) for a panic attack. Instead of helping him, he simplifies the issue: take the money or keep the company, just like a previous patient who, after being faced with the same choice, shot himself—though the doc can’t remember what the guy decided, and even tries to pitch Richard on giving him some startup capital.

Ultimately, because Mike Judge’s track record shows that he tips toward a small beacon of hope even in his bleakest social commentary (Idiocracy), Richard ropes his startup incubator cohort into forming a company together—but with a distinct goal to combat the cookie-cutter corporate environment established by other domineering brands. That struggle will be difficult—just look at how Richard resorts to repeating marketing taglines from other companies when trying to express a distilled philosophy. In the final moments, in conversation with Erlich, the optimism emerges: “You want to build something and see it through.” Even on a digital frontier, carving out territory of one’s own without answering to others is still the best case scenario.

There are two big hurdles for Silicon Valley to leap over at some point during its first season—one involving demographics and the other involving a tragedy. The former is the distinct lack of prominent female characters. Monica is the only woman who recurs with any kind of meaning to the overall arc of the show, and while she is portrayed as important, she’s Gregory’s assistant. In the pilot, she’s the one who sells Richard on going it alone, because his compression technology could “change the world” through medical imagery or navigation data. The only other female character I can name from the pilot is Gavin Belson’s assistant, one of the many people who just can’t stop gushing about the false idol they worship—I mean work for. While this heavily skewed percentage may accurately reflect the makeup of companies in the area, it’s not a particularly useful narrative balance.

The latter is the death of Christopher Evan Welch, who played Peter Gregory, from lung cancer in December. I’ve seen the first half of this season, and though Gregory often comes off as a bit of a cartoon character in dealing with investment decisions, he’s an integral part of the competitive balance the show sets up between cults of personality. His loss will be a big one, especially since the character is set up as a reluctant guide for how Richard and his new employees can navigate the path to becoming an important and profitable company.

Richard is naïve in business relations, but already jaded with Silicon Valley corporate culture—judging by his interactions with brotacular co-workers who chug the Hooli Kool-Aid—which is a good starting point for someone as cynical about this region as Judge. This is an opportunity to explore an area that only rarely is portrayed accurately enough to engage with the cultural consequences of what has happened in the past two decades in the Bay Area. From this first impression, it looks like Judge has returned to form with a show that has the potential to be his funniest, most incisive satire in years.

Extra Bytes

• A wonderful touch for Bay Area punk insurgence: Green Day’s “Minority” playing over the end credits.

• The pitch for BitSoup is absolutely hilarious, especially Erlich’s closing reaction: “This is Silicon Valley, not…[pauses to search on an iPad]…Paris, Texas. That’s where Campbell’s Soup is.”

• Programmer groups of five, according to Gavin Belson: a tall, skinny white guy; a short, skinny Asian guy; a fat guy with a ponytail; some guy with crazy facial hair; and an east Indian guy.

• That spiritual advisor is clearly just agreeing with Gavin no matter what in order to fleece him of as much money as possible.

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