You Don’t Have to Get Startup Culture to Love ‘Silicon Valley’s’ Tech-Bro Satire

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HBO’s newest comedy, Silicon Valley, is a skewering of a world that could always stand to be knocked down a few pegs. It’s a satirical look at the tech bubble and startup culture, a humorous criticism of the ridiculousness of Silicon Valley and the people who live there. It’s a comedy that could only be written by someone close to the subject matter; co-creator Mike Judge lived and worked in Silicon Valley for a number of years. Though Judge is one of my favorite writers and the cast is packed with talented comedians, I had doubts about the show. How funny would I find a show about a world that I know next to nothing about? The answer is: very, very funny.

Silicon Valley centers around a group of tech developers who live together in an “incubator” owned by Elrich (T.J. Miller) who is rich and content enough to basically do nothing but smoke pot and take ten percent of anything developed in his house. The pilot kicks off with Richard (Thomas Middleditch), who has created a music program with a secretly great compression algorithm. He finds himself in the middle of a bidding war between billionaires who each want his product, resulting in Richard becoming a CEO of his own startup, bringing his friends and roommates along for the ride.

There are some jokes and tech references that go over my head, but the humor is broad enough to be universally funny. It’s very Mike Judge: malaise, office assholes, stoner comedy, and terror of the opposite sex. The show gets stronger as it goes on, and to be honest, I only half paid attention until the fifth episode, which cleverly raises the stakes and ups the laughs. Then I went back and re-watched the rest.

Richard is the key to Silicon Valley. He’s too nervous and too nice, indecisive and prone to panic attacks, and Middleditch perfectly captures his awkward, shaky existence. Richard is undeniably brilliant but doesn’t quite grasp the smaller steps to success. He treats a potential rich investor like a college professor, mentioning due dates and using Wikipedia to research what a business plan actually is. There is a running gag about a billionaire’s hatred of college — he offers $100,000 to kids who drop out of college to “pursue their idea” — but the guys are clueless college students in a beer-filled dorm.

The rest of the nerds aren’t much better, though they are all hilariously written characters. Most will be a delight to comedy fans because comedians T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani, and Martin Starr don’t stray too far from their usual acts. Miller is big and broad, vaguely reminiscent of Will Ferrell’s earlier years, and will likely take off when Silicon Valley concludes. Nanjiani plays Dinesh, a Pakistini engineer who didn’t shake a woman’s hand until he was 17 years old. Nanjiani’s nervous, careful delivery is at home here, much more than it is on a lesser show like Franklin and Bash. The always-welcome Martin Starr plays Satanist Gilfoyle and is as acerbic as ever, more Party Down than Freaks and Geeks. The competitive chemistry between Dinesh and Gilfoyle is a high point of Silicon Valley.

Rounding out the cast is the late Christopher Evan Welch, who gives perhaps the most memorable performance as Peter Gregory; Josh Brener as the put-upon and unfortunately named Big Head; and Zach Woods as Jared, a timid shark of a character, who is more welcome here than on The Office.

But the biggest character here is Silicon Valley itself. It’s a place where Kid Rock performs at tech parties in 2014 — and is the poorest person in the room. It’s a place that is mostly devoid of women (cue up the think-pieces), but that’s more of a reflection of the awkward, uncomfortable nature of the men. This is a place with a one-track mind. In Los Angeles, every waiter has a screenplay in their backseat; in Silicon Valley, every cashier has an app idea in their back pocket. In one of the funniest scenes, Richard suffers a panic attack and visits a doctor who gives him terrible advice. The doctor (Andy Daly) views the visit as opportunity to pitch Richard an app that tells a patient whether he is having a panic attack or a heart attack. Medicine is a deeply admirable profession, but it’s no tech bro.

Silicon Valley isn’t without its problems. Occasionally, to borrow a phrase from one its characters, it disappears up its own asshole. I’m sure it’s heavily relatable to the people of Silicon Valley, but it’s hard for the rest of us to really feel for a main character whose three options in the pilot are essentially: 1. stay at his job where he gets paid a lot of money; 2. sell his program to a billionaire for a lot of money; or 3. sell his program to a different billionaire for slightly less but definitely still a lot of money. Silicon Valley will surely be referred to as the nerdy version of Entourage, and though I don’t fully buy the comparison — this show is actually funny! — I can understand where it’s coming from. These guys will definitely enjoy the ride up to the top, the big checks, and the women, but they’ll do so in the most awkward and hilarious way imaginable.