In HBO’s (TWX) Silicon Valley, Mike Judge’s lampoon of the tech industry, the main character, Richard (Thomas Middleditch), like everyone else within a 100-mile radius, has a great idea. He’s created a music site that inadvertently holds the key to compressing data files to a size so small that any media can be instantly accessed on any device. His discovery sets off a venture capital feeding frenzy, fueled in equal measure by ego, absurdity, and actual vision.
Is it any surprise that the creator of Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill, and Idiocracy would want to take a stab at satirizing startup culture? For all the attention the industry gets, previous attempts to do so have fallen flat. (See Bravo’s (CMCSA) execrable, short-lived reality show, Start-Ups: Silicon Valley, and the weak tea of Vince Vaughn’s The Internship.) Judge is uniquely qualified to train his sights on the pretensions and social dynamics that have found root just south of San Francisco—the guy also created Office Space, the greatest commentary on 20th century white collardom since Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.
Office Space, set at the fictional Innitech, came out in February 1999. Back then, Google (GOOG) was five months old, and Facebook (FB) was five years away from being founded—to say nothing of Twitter (TWTR), Instagram, and WhatsApp. The employees of Innitech were cubicle-dwelling drones trying to debug Y2K errors, not free-spirited dreamers bent on changing the world.
That latter group is precisely the population we encounter in Silicon Valley. Richard works by day for Hooli, a vaguely defined tech company with a colorful campus and a charismatic chief executive officer. When his music idea takes off, Richard teams up with Peter Gregory, an eccentric genius who, like real-world VC titan Peter Thiel, has offered to pay college students to drop out and pursue their dreams. Gregory, played by the late Christopher Evan Welch, is a god in the Valley, but all that money and adoration hasn’t cured him of his fundamental awkwardness. He still behaves like an alien trapped in human form who hopes he won’t get found out.
Silicon Valley’s first episode is mighty good, and subsequent ones get even better. (A special shout-out to the portrayal of the growing friendship/rivalry between two of Richard’s colleagues, played by Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr.) The show is a slow burn, with subtle yet delightful touches, such as a Hooli team meeting that takes place on a multiperson tandem bicycle and a toga party where actresses have been hired to talk to the nerds in attendance.
As Richard’s idea becomes a company, we follow him into a bizarre world of unlimited pettiness (billionaires using their companies in a proxy war to settle old scores), jaw-dropping self-importance (Judge has a perfect ear for the nauseating rhetoric that SV mandarins deploy to sound thoughtful), and the stomach-churning anxiety that accompanies young people making huge decisions in very short periods of time. Middleditch’s face is a constantly shifting landscape of hope, frustration, and abject fear.
Like any series that zeroes in on a subculture, there’s always the question of how much you need to know to get the jokes. Sure, it helps to have a working knowledge of people like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt, who makes a cameo in the first episode, but it’s by no means necessary.
Maybe the best way to describe Silicon Valley is to keep it in the nerd vernacular and think of it not as a superior comedy, but as a great work of science fiction: A band of newcomers lands on a strange planet. The language, customs, and ethics are different from our world. Will our ragtag crew manage to survive this bewildering, sometimes hostile galaxy? When it’s not making you laugh, Silicon Valley is every bit as compelling as that time the Borg abducted Captain Picard from the Enterprise and turned him into Locutus. (Come on, you all know what I’m talking about.) You can’t wait to see what happens next.