Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
For those of us who've endured watching trivial tales of the tech world that remind us more of booze-fueled frat shenanigans than accurate depictions of an industry, HBO's version finally feels like someone gets it — and isn't afraid to poke fun at it.
Mike Judge, creator of comedic cult classics such as Office Space and Beavis and Butthead, first introduces us to Richard, played by Thomas Middleditch, who is running a startup in a makeshift incubator at a friend's Palo Alto home. His company, Pied Piper, makes a somewhat useful tool that helps musicians discern if their songs infringe on any copyrights. However, he has also created an unprecedented way to compress files that earns the attention of some deep-pocketed Valley bigwigs.
Suddenly, Richard finds himself debating the most important decision of his career: Do I sell my company or do I take on investment money and build it into something bigger? You know, a conversation that probably permeates the air every other day at techie hangouts like Coffee Bar, The Battery, or The Sub. He pukes twice in the decision-making process, naturally.
If there's anything off-putting about this show, it's Richard's exaggeratedly timid, rock-kicking personality. While there are certainly examples of the socially unsure digital genius running around Silicon Valley, a good portion of the entrepreneurs out here are genuinely personable. Or, the Valley set comes off confident to a fault, whereas Richard speaks under his breath and carries himself as if he can't interact with the jock-like bullies of his adulthood: the "brogrammers."
But, you forgive the sweeping generalizations, because stereotypes are what make this show so relatable — and funny. The idea that behind the binary code and billions is an approachable, driven spirit forging to find his place is not only endearing, it's intriguing.
Richard's life opens to us on the dance floor of a party where Kid Rock is entertaining otherwise unengaged "techies" who have come to celebrate a friend's startup acquisition. And, many of us have actually seen '90s has-beens hawking products or performing at parties to try and prove some last shred of relevance. This harsh moment is just one of many that are almost painfully realistic in the show's half-hour premiere.
We also see the juxtaposition between Hooli, an obvious reference to the Googles and Facebooks of the Valley — complete with buses and bottomless coffee — and the anti-higher-education venture capitalist who can only be a nod at Peter Thiel.
One of the most cringeworthy moments comes when Peter Gregory, played by the late Christopher Evan Welch, gives a Ted talk on the dangers of earning a college degree. Richard waits outside the talk to pitch Gregory, a guerilla tactic many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley know too well. Still, some of the stereotypes are taken to slapstick extremes. A doctor suggests that Richard beta test his new app that can detect whether you're having a heart attack or just panicking. Later, a lowly vice president at Hooli reminisces about a time he was told, "I'm not humiliating you, I'm elevating you."
Of course, women are underrepresented in the pilot. We see all of about two women with substantial roles, only one of which will likely continue on to future episodes. While the dearth of women might be taken as commentary on the industry’s women in tech issues, we're not ready to write off the show as sexist just yet. We've already seen the Zuckerberg and Page archetype, we've got to hope we'll see Sandberg pop in soon.
The show plays with obvious frustrations (and hook-up app comparisons) in the Valley, as well. Incubator-owner Erlich, played by T.J. Miller, advises Richard that he should focus on a more marketable product, like "NipAlert," an app that can locate the closest woman with erect nipples. Hooli, and its CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), is portrayed as a cannibalistic acquisition monger, illustrating very real frustrations of young companies that get bought up before they ever get to be "a thing."
Like a good Pixar movie, Silicon Valley has all the humor and outlandishness to keep a broad audience hooked while sprinkling in certain jokes to wink at the insiders. And, in so deftly exploiting — and entertaining — the S.F. citizenry the show's based on, it's clear Judge and the producers have done their homework. But, best of all, the pilot episode successfully lampoons the tech community's inflated sense of self while still, somehow, respecting its unique ability to change the world.