Is ‘Silicon Valley’ the Darkest Sitcom on TV?


Silicon Valley, the parody so eerily note-perfect it’s practically not a parody, returned to HBO this Sunday, and as befits a show about the country’s most intensely scrutinized industry, it’s already come up for breathless praise (so on point it’s basically a documentary!) and disappointed pans (so toothless it lets tech bros off the hook!). But while the second season has some new additions — more female characters, more scare tactics from Gavin Benson, more sub-genres of douchebag — the show has retained its defining characteristic and greatest strength: total, unremitting darkness.

Few scenes communicate Silicon Valley‘s attitude towards its object of satire, and means of communicating it, better than a sequence from last Sunday’s premiere. Pied Piper, the startup at the show’s center, is seeking Series A funding, sending founder Richard Hendrix and incubator host/board member/bravado supplier Erlich Bachman to one VC firm after another in search of higher and higher valuations. Previously confined to programmers and executives rather than investors, Silicon Valley has found a whole new set of dupes to sink its teeth into: suits who talk “escape velocity” and “critical mass” rather than anything the average viewer might mistake for English.

Worse than the executives themselves, however, are the tactics Erlich uses to lure them in. When an outburst from Richard reveals that VCs are susceptible to “negging” — what resident sweetheart Jared Dunn describes as “a manipulative sex strategy used by lonely chauvinists” — Erlich takes the strategy and runs with it, well past the limits of human decency. He tells one company their logo looks like a sideways vagina — and he finds that to be racist. He tells an executive he’s the human equivalent of a flaccid penis (actually pronounced “flax-id” — thanks, Richard!). And finally, he makes a handy metaphor for the whole funding process horrifyingly literal and puts his balls on a firm’s conference room table.

The kicker, however, isn’t Erlich’s boorishness, however gleefully acted by comedian T.J. Miller. It’s the response his behavior evokes from the VCs, the supposed adults in the room meant to make clear-eyed, rational business decisions: high valuations; then higher valuations; then insanely high valuations, from (where else?) the place Erlich indecently exposed himself. We see the creation of a toxic culture in action, in which heinous behavior (a painting is compared to “harlequin Kama Sutra, done poorly”) and poor business decisions (Pied Piper ends up wildly overvalued) are rewarded in equal measure.

The bleak only gets bleaker when Richard and company attend the funeral of Peter Gregory, the Thiel-esque eccentric genius who saw promise in Pied Piper. “How exactly can we quantify another human’s contributions to mankind?” asked real-life Valley CEO Josh Rosenstein. The answer, to any sane person, is that we can’t, but this is not a place for sane people, or even checks on insane ones: “Let’s break it down into its three component elements!” Rosenstein continues. The subsequent algorithm includes “detrended correlations” and the absolute value of the #ThankYouPeter hashtag.

A more caustic perspective on the current tech bubble is hard to imagine. These people, Silicon Valley tells us, will happily dehumanize themselves and everyone around them on the road to capitalist utopia. And it’s a message that’s all the more ugly and uncomfortable for sticking extremely close to life. Rosenstein, after all, followed up on his cameo by posting a link to his “actionable… meta-plan for a sustainable thriving human future” without apparent irony.

Unsurprisingly, this approach produces its most polarizing results when applied to the issue that’s proved most difficult for both Silicon Valley and Silicon Valley to handle: gender in tech. Last season, some critics derided the show’s “boring sexism”; this season, Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz put it more diplomatically. “It’s good that her casting gives the only female regular from season one, Amanda Crew’s Monica, another woman to talk to,” he wrote in reference to Laurie Bream, Peter Gregory’s replacement as managing partner of VC firm Raviga, “but Silicon Valley still can’t seem to figure out how to go from straightforwardly acknowledging and sending up the beta male ‘brogrammer’ culture (which admittedly is male-driven) and incidentally validating it by only caring about men.”

Silicon Valley, in other words, skewers the tech world’s sexism and hyper-masculinity by depicting it in its worst, barely exaggerated state. It’s an approach that reminds me of Tina Fey’s racial satire: rather than create an idealized comic universe where the workplace is diverse and prejudice-free, both Silicon Valley and shows like 30 Rock or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt depict places where structural bias keeps certain people out of certain places — women out of tech; people of color out of the writers’ room — and the entitlement and obliviousness that result run rampant. Until now, Silicon Valley has chosen to show male domination of tech as just that: an atmosphere where big corporations and scrappy underdogs alike are staffed by dudes, who subsequently take part in the unmistakably masculine one-upsmanship exemplified by Erlich’s, um, stunt.

Which isn’t to say that Silicon Valley doesn’t benefit from the presence of more women this season, or that its essential darkness doesn’t work with female characters in the mix. Viewers have been promised two new ones this season, although three episodes in, Laurie Bream remains the only one to make an appearance. But even though Laurie is an investor, not a programmer (though that’s probably new character #2), she demonstrates some hard truths about making it in the Valley as a woman. An emotional robot — girls can be socially awkward, too! — fixated on hard numbers above all else, Laurie is an extreme manifestation of the Peggy Olson type, a woman who’s hardened herself beyond the possibility of injury to survive at the top.

And as the show implies through her contrast with Peter Gregory, her style may well have been shaped by her gender. Gregory had the freedom to invest in sesame seeds, ostrich farms, and other massive risks and get a reputation for oddball brilliance in return. Bream has opted to go for the safer route — “Nonsense is not a quantifiable metric!,” she objects in a later episode — a quality that may come from simply not being Peter Gregory. It could also be the result of having her decision-making shaped by the pressure cooker of being the only woman in the boardroom. Either way, her response to her predecessor’s passing (announcing “Peter Gregory is dead” three times in a single conversation) proves that her comedy is just as black as the boys’.