Ah, late spring. The flowers blooming. The sun warm on your back. The major-channel primetime closing up shop for the summer and the cable networks beginning to jockey for the increasingly bored big-network audiences with their own solid shows (FX’s Louie or AMC’s new season of Mad Men, for instance).
Not that HBO needs to jockey for anything, of course. Their offerings are, excluding a few scarce missteps here and there (I’m looking at you, Getting On and How to Make it in America), generally fairly reliable. And spring and summer, by and large, are HBO’s big months. Along with the traditional late-March-early-April return of Game of Thrones, this spring has seen the return of Veep and this summer will host the annual July return of the exiting True Blood. HBO has also premiered two new shows for this spring, one being John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight (reviewed here yesterday) and the internet startup sitcom Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley springs from the mind of Mike Judge, an elusive American humorist whose style is almost impossible to pin down. On one hand, he brought us Beavis and Butthead, a weird hybrid of lowbrow comedy and pop culture parody. On the other, he brought us Office Space, a sly corporate satire more dialogue-driven than broad and gaggy. Aside from those two entries Judge has also delivered Idiocracy, which had a good heart but was too manic and esoteric to stick, and the long-running King of the Hill, which in many ways was simply a straightforward sitcom about conservative Texans with no real gimmick whatsoever. Looking at these four examples, it’s safe to say that there’s nothing instantly identifiable about Judge’s style.
Silicon Valley may help to cement Judge more into Office Space‘s neighborhood on the humor spectrum than anything else he’s done, and that’s a positive thing. Office Space worked because of two things: one, it emerged quietly and without fanfare, allowing the public to essentially find it on its own and share it among one another to elevate it to the cult classic it has become; and two, it was so generically identifiable that it found fans in virtually anyone who’d ever worked in any type of office environment at all.
If one of Office Space‘s appeals was that it tapped into the everyman work consciousness, Silicon Valley is a tougher sell in that on the surface it seems to tap into a very specific character type: the internet boomers of Southern California. But though Silicon Valley fences itself into a particular time and place, the characters therein have become an archetype existing in nearly everyone’s lives in 2014 — the internet enthusiast, the computer programmer, the tech-head.
Call it the anti-Entourage. Fledgling programmer Richard (Thomas Middleditch) is living in a thinktank with his code-writing colleagues when he comes up with a breakthrough application. As the billionaires of Silicon Valley scramble to wrestle it away from him, he enlists his housemates to work with him to become their own company. As tech money and fame descend upon him, he struggles with his change of station from nobody to hot commodity. Suddenly, everybody suddenly wants a piece of Richard.
It’s not exactly “a family of four lives next door to a wacky neighbor and gets into adventures,” but this is HBO, known for narrative sitcoms and higher-level writing. The cast, full of strong comic character actors, really shines: T.J. Miller as Erlich, the flaky once-in-demand head of the household, comedian Kumail Nanjiani as the pragmatic Dinesh, Freaks and Geeks and Party Down‘s Martin Star as satanist security coder Gilfoyle and The Office’s Zach Woods as milquetoast assistant Jared, a defector from Silicon Valley‘s Google-esque fictional company Hooli.
Through four episodes, Silicon Valley has so far done a solid job of character development — Miller (who, in his comic career, ranges from likeable to this-guy-is-a-bit-much for me) particularly seems to so far be the most memorable break-out character, but proven talents like Starr and Nanjiani haven’t had a whole lot to do yet, and it must be expected they’ll begin holding their own at some point. Exceptionally fun — and in completely a Mike Judge, underlying satire move — are the jabs those who run Silicon Valley itself, from savant-esque “visionaries” to faux-holistic CEOs who keep shamans on the payroll but don’t really glean anything from them. Middleditch anchors the proceedings aptly, anxiety-ridden and possibly in over his head.
Silicon Valley has already been greenlit for a second season, which means HBO has high hopes for it, but it will be interesting to see if the show can find its foothold in audiences. Entourage was a similar proposition, but it worked because it’s fun to watch the film industry roast itself. I’m not entirely sure we needed a Silicon Valley sendup (especially now — didn’t the Silicon Valley boom end a little while back? Correct me if I’m wrong, comment section), but here it is. And for what it is, it’s fun, even if it’s a little dry thus far. Judge has delivered a clever, tricky poke at the traditional Hollywood archetype of the “nerd” and updated it to a valid iteration for 2014. That’s nice to see, and Silicon Valley has a lot of potential if it can find a way to draw in those who have no real stake in the technology game. If it simply turns into a show for techies and internet wizards, it’s just going to end up simply pirated by an audience who knows how to find it without paying for HBO.