Entering the Unhappy (Silicon) Valley

silicon valley feature

The stars of Silicon Valley. (L-R: Kumail Najiani, Martin Starr, Thomas Middleditch, Zach Woods, T.J. Miller.) Still via HBO. 

Right after Game of Thrones’ fourth season premiere, HBO snuck in a new much-hyped show, Silicon Valley, presumably hoping to catch some of the preceding massive GoT audience

The show, created by Office Space writer-director Mike Judge, perfectly skewers life in the tech bubble. It follows Richard Hendrix (played by Thomas Middleditch), a programmer biding his time in an “incubator” house and working at drone-level at tech giant company Hooli (a thinly-veiled parody of Google), as he works on his own program. Richard may not be particularly charismatic, but he is sympathetic as he navigates the competitive and tech-elitist world of Silicon Valley. When his program is valued at $4 million he doesn’t handle it particularly well, instead leaving the building to go quietly have a panic attack.

And that’s one of the great observations in Silicon Valley; that although these guys may have become tech superstars, earning billions and able to hire Kid Rock to play at their house parties (yes, that is a cameo), they’re still the awkward computer nerds they always were.

Possibly the best scene of the pilot is when Richard goes to see one of these tech legends, Peter Gregory (played perfectly by Christopher Evan Welch), give a TEDtalk. Now, TEDtalks are one of those cultural artifacts that I have been desperate to see fully satirized since I first saw one. It’s not that I dislike them, but the over-stylized over-simplification and intense artificiality of the setting is ripe for comedy. Gregory hits every over-intonation, as he spouts meaningless jargon and foundlessly criticises university education.

There are also clear remnants of the groundwork Office Space laid about the modern office worker, and it’s refreshing to see this perspective on “cool” work places. For all their energy pods and cereal stations, the Hooli “campus” is as mundane as any other office, and Richard and his roommate Big Head (played by Josh Brener) wear the expressions of every other bored drone as they walk the hallowed Hooli halls.

silicon vally hooli

Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and Big Head (Josh Brener) bored at Hooli. Still via HBO.

But it’s not just the cool workplaces that are revealed as shams. The show also highlights how the very idea of the rebellious, individualistic American has been completely corporatized. When Richard decides to start his own company he’s at a loss for unused catchphrases. “Let’s think different,” he says. That’s Apple, his friends correct. “Okay, let’s just do it!” Nike. 

The series premiere has also perfectly collided with the impending “Tech Wreck,” as stock is falling in tech companies, perhaps as investors are getting disillusioned about the actual worth of profitless apps and software. 

I’m still undecided on whether Silicon Valley is too harsh on its subjects or not harsh enough. The supporting cast is excellent however, including Martin Starr as Gilfoyle, a “LaVeyan Satanist with theist tendencies,” Kumail Nanjiani as programmer Dinesh, and T.J. Miller as “incubator” owner Erlich, who refuses to shut up about his own program, that he sold, “Aviato” (and yes, you will have his faux-Italian pronunciation of that stuck in your head for the next week.)

There is a big problem with the show though – there’s only one female character: Peter Gregory’s assistant, Monica, played by Amanda Crew. In the whole pilot, one woman. Countless droves of men. Now, I’ve never taken a formal census of the tech world, but whether this is representative of the real situation or not, there’s a big problem somewhere. And regardless of whether or not women are present in the tech world, there are multiple characters who could easily have been women – the doctor Richard goes to see after his panic attack, or the performer at the opening party (instead of Kid Rock). 

It’s almost as if the gender inequity of Silicon Valley is being used as a free pass for an all-male cast on Silicon Valley.

Not cool, HBO.

But don’t just listen to me, you can watch the whole pilot for free on HBO’s YouTube, and make up your own minds.

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