Update: You can watch the entire first episode for free on YouTube (embedded below).
No one is more perfectly suited to lampoon the startup scene than Mike Judge.
The creator of classic comedies like Office Space, Idiocracy, and, yes, Beavis and Butt-Head, Judge also spent several months working for a Palo Alto, Calif., technology company in 1987 (before he, presumably, ran away screaming). Judge gets tech, he gets geeks, and most important, he gets the strange culture that’s so specific to the technology world.
All of that is evident from the very first scene in HBO’s Silicon Valley, which premieres Sunday night. Kid Rock is playing at a company’s launch party, and nobody cares. An overly excited entrepreneur loudly proclaims his love for esoteric and unsexy enterprise technology onstage. And Google chairman Eric Schmidt is there for some reason.
The series centers on Richard (Thomas Middleditch), an awkward, lowly programmer working at Hooli, a Google-esque tech company where employees ride Segways and hold bike meetings. Like many engineers, he also has a side project: an app that helps musicians and record labels figure out when someone is stealing their work. It’s the sort of niche and unmarketable startup idea we get pitched every day here at VentureBeat — but with one big difference.
It seems that amid developing his app, Richard also stumbled upon an ultraefficient method of file compression. (Judge consulted a Stanford compression expert on the technology, so the reveal doesn’t feel entirely like make-believe.) Like so many in the tech world, Richard is initially oblivious to the value of his own work. It takes a couple of tech-bro jerks to see the potential in his compression scheme.
The potential of Richard’s technology sparks an immediate bidding war among two tech titans: his boss, Gavin Belson, who wants to buy his company outright for $10 million (let’s call it the Zuckerberg approach); and Peter Gregory, who offers a $200,000 seed investment.
The way Richard confronts that choice likely isn’t far off from what many entrepreneurs go through today. Do you go for the quick paycheck? Or do you take the small investment and continue to build your own thing?
Part of the show’s genius, like Judge’s Idiocracy, is that it hits a bit too close to home. If you’re even tangentially connected to the tech world, you’ll know the type of people represented onscreen. Bigwig investor Gregory, played by Christopher Evan Welch, is hell-bent on abolishing higher education, which brings to mind investor Peter Thiel’s own anti-college campaign. And Richard is the sort of geek that prefers Steve Wozniak to Steve Jobs — because, of course, Jobs didn’t code.
The tech culture references are spot-on and genuinely hilarious, but they’ll also make you feel a bit dirty afterward when you realize the show is probably making fun of you. (Perhaps that’s why I’m hearing about so many in the tech scene who seem to be actively avoiding the show.)
This doesn’t mean that Silicon Valley is only made for geeks. It has plenty of easily accessible humor, ranging from the very low-brow to ingenious wordplay. It also helps that the show has a strong supporting cast, including Martin Starr of Freaks and Geeks fame as a Satanist with “theist tendencies” and Kumail Nanjiani, who had a string of great segments on Portlandia and other shows.
While Office Space was a condemnation of ’90s-era office culture, where workers were trapped in tiny cubicles and worked on projects of indiscernible value, Silicon Valley casts a light on the modern cult of the entrepreneur. Richard starts off as a cog in Hooli’s vast corporate machine, but he ends up becoming “the man” as CEO of his own startup.
One scene in Silicon Valley‘s second episode is a direct reversal of Office Space‘s infamous “What do you do?” scene. Instead of having his job threatened by menacing consultants, Richard is forced to ask all of his friends what exactly they do for his company. And for his closest friend, that leads to heartbreak.
Silicon Valley is genuinely hilarious, but it’s also got plenty of heart to it. The show is more interested in how people exist within the sometimes absurd tech world, rather than just showing off its excess (which is mostly used for laughs). How do friendships withstand a sudden influx of money and power? And what kind of a leader would you be if you had the chance to run your own company? This isn’t just Entourage in Palo Alto.
The show also reflects one of the real Silicon Valley’s pervasive issues: a stark gender imbalance. I saw only had two major female characters in the two episodes I watched — one an assistant to Belson, and the other a stripper (who uses Square to get paid for her services). This is something that may be fixed later in the season, but it’s a shame Judge didn’t see it as an immediate problem to address early on.
Ultimately, Silicon Valley is exactly what the tech world needs right now. It holds up a mirror that shows both the best and worst of the tech, and in doing so it forces us to confront issues that may be hard to see when you’re embedded in the Silicon Valley bubble.
The geeks are in charge now, but the business game is still the same.