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Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

'Silicon Valley's Skewering of the Tech Industry Feels Spot-On

A few weeks ago, South by Southwest offered an advance screening of the first two episodes of Mike Judge's new sitcom, Silicon Valley. It was shown as part of the festival's Episodic section, a new addition this year. Janet Pierson, Head of SXSW Film, stated the decision came after seeing how well the premiere of Lena Dunham’s Girls did in 2012, and she viewed it as a way to broaden the festival’s offerings — and stay vital — at a time when TV is offering so much interesting work. Judging from the reaction of the 600-plus film and tech nerds piled into the Austin Convention Center's Vimeo Theater, SXSW was the perfect place for the Silicon Valley premiere. In fact, it walked away with their category’s Audience Award.

Silicon Valley opens on a raucous Kid Rock concert — not exactly what you'd expect from a show about the tech world. But not to fear. Within seconds, it cuts to a wide shot of an empty backyard at a party that Rock has clearly been hired to play. Hiring and then effectively ignoring a rock star is the sort of gratuitous show of wealth that makes the real Silicon Valley ridiculous. And that's exactly what Judge is skewering here and throughout the HBO series.

Of course, the show’s heroes aren't the ones throwing the party. They're the ones cowering in the kitchen, afraid to talk to anyone new (in particular, it's pointed out, the women in attendance). Richard (Thomas Middleditch), “Big Head” (Josh Brener), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) live together with Erlich (T.J. Miller) in his hacker house: a nerd's frat house where the guys live rent-free, so long as Erlich gets an ownership stake in whatever app they create there.

When Richard's laughably redundant app for searching out music files turns out to have an algorithm that allows users to search on a compressed data space without quality loss — translation: it can download files to a device at a fraction of the current speed — a bidding war ensues. Richard quickly finds himself making the difficult decision between taking a huge pay day for his algorithm or comparably smaller funds to start his own company, one with billion-dollar potential. Richard goes the start-up route and hires his friends. Jared (Zach Woods) joins as their business manager in the second episode, and their company is haltingly running from there.

In the SXSW Q & A, Judge stated what interested him in writing about the tech world — aside from the fact that it's one he knows, having worked there as an engineer — was how the most successful people were the ones least capable of handling that success. And he chose a cast that can play to that theme. Middleditch’s Richard is the heart of the show as the most relatable character, and the more awkward he makes Richard, they more you want to root for him. Miller will be the show’s breakout star with his performance of an egotistical slacker that takes himself far too seriously. Nanjiani and Woods are both handily funny and lovable in the ways we’ve come to expect from both performers. And for lovers of Party Down, Martin Starr’s Gilfoyle is reminiscent of Roman, but in this case he’s a security expert who also happens to worship Satan, which hopefully will make for some weirdly fun storylines down the road.

Unfortunately, the show only has one woman in its regular cast. (I’m so bored of having to have this conversation, I just fell asleep while typing that sentence. But it’s sadly a conversation that’s still needed.) Amanda Crew plays Monica, assistant to Peter Gregory, the tech guru who funds Richard’s company. Crew does a great job as an actress, but her character doesn’t carry much of the comedy. In the Q & A, one of the first audience questions came from a woman who asked whether the show planned to feature any female engineers among its characters. It was clearly a query the show’s writers and cast were anticipating. (At SXSW, nearly every panel or Q & A I sat in on had some version of this question, including Mindy Kaling’s.) Miller tried to make a joke of it, mentioning how few women are present in the real life Silicon Valley, but it fell flat and sounded less like a bit than a defensive posture. It’s also not entirely accurate, as women comprised 50% of SXSW Interactive’s attendees this year. Judge answered more simply. “Yes. We’ve talked about it. We’re only two episodes in, give us a couple more.” Fair enough.

Silicon Valley offers the full package for a breakout sitcom: a strong script, a cast that makes the writing even funnier, and source material that’s long overdue for the satire treatment. It will undoubtedly be compared to The Big Bang Theory (Nerds! Social awkwardness!) and in the rhythm and pacing, it does feel like a network sitcom, albeit one with much dirtier jokes. But while the characters may at first feel similar to that Chuck Lorre ratings-smasher, it's Judge's satire of startup culture that really makes Silicon Valley stand apart. Many a punchline is aimed at the bombast and faux humility of the tech world and its “we're gonna change the world with monetized products” bravura. The show also offers effective mockery of that world's meaningless jargon. And in its best moments, Silicon Valley often combines the two, as in our introduction to guru Peter Gregory in a TED Talk, “I wanted to make a difference through minimal message transport layers.” That line made all the tech folks in the SXSW audience laugh, but the beauty of it — like the show itself — is that you don’t have to be an insider to get it.

Erica Lies is a writer and improviser in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, and Culture Map.

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