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TechWar: The Geek-on-Geek Violence of "Silicon Valley"

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire April 6, 2014 at 8:46PM

Mike Judge affectionately savages the bro-surdity of tech culture in his new HBO sitcom.
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Christopher Evan Welch in Mike Judge's "Silicon Valley"
Christopher Evan Welch in Mike Judge's "Silicon Valley"

The first episode of "Silicon Valley," Mike Judge's HBO sitcom about swimming with the high-tech sharks, didn't grab me much the first time I watched it. But the second time through, I found myself jotting down every third line -- not laughing, exactly, but marveling at the precision with which Judge and his co-writers skewer the tech industry's pretensions. Perhaps it's for the best that the computer on which I took those notes is currently in the shop, or I might have ended up quoting the entire episode.

As is their right, those with first-hand experience of the world "Silicon Valley" depicts have weighed in on its accuracy: Buzzfeed's Jonah Peretti says "the show will not elucidate what Silicon Valley is 'really like,' except in a highly fictionalized, exaggerated, absurdist form," and Tesla's Elon Musk observed "I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley. If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it." But it's a testament to the extent "Silicon Valley" gets at the culture's heart, if not its extremities, that Musk sounds exactly like one of the show's self-satisfied e-vangelists -- specifically T.J. Miller's Erlich, who in the fifth episode decides the only way to come up with the right logo for his burgeoning startup is to scarf psychedelic mushrooms and embark on a desert vision quest.

Central to "Silicon Valley" is the idea of the tech industry as a community that, for all its rhetoric about changing the world -- a sentiment that here is invariably followed by starry-eyed references to "integrated multi-platform functionality" or "minimal message-oriented transport layers" --  feels more like a college dorm where it's perpetually finals week. Even more than in the real tech industry, women are in short supply -- so far the main female roles are a tech billionaire's second in command and an exotic dancer -- and the men treat each other with caustic hostility that occasionally reveals itself as an expression of love. One character, played by Josh Brener, is referred to only as "Big Head." I pray the show never explains why.

The i at the center of "Silicon Valley's" storm is Richard (Thomas Middleditch), a struggling programmer who has, almost by accident, invented a compression algorithm that could radically transform the world of data transmission. It's a by-product of his initial brainchild, Pied Piper, a site that lets you check a recording against the history of music to see if you're inadvertently infringing on a copyright -- the only problem being, as one of the fellow coders in his incubator points out, that nobody gives a shit about copyright. In the first episode, two rival billionaires get wind of Richard's breakthrough: Gavin Belson ("Big Love's" Matt Ross), the self-consciously serene CEO of the tech giant Hooli, and Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), a disassociative eccentric who in one episode delays a critical meeting while he pores over the offerings from a local Burger King. Welch is brilliant in the role, shifting between dizzying eccentricities and moments of terrifying lucidity, which makes it even more tragic that he died in December, depriving him of the recognition that would almost certainly have come.

Even after the five episodes HBO provided in advance, I'm not quite sold on "Silicon Valley," which aims for the exceedingly narrow sweet spot where satire and character comedy overlap. But there's enough genius at work amid its more plodding sections to keep me in it for the long haul -- at least long enough to see if we're dealing with the next Facebook or the next Google+.

More reviews of "Silicon Valley"

Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker

For anyone with even passing experience of the tech industry, this show is a high-grade Proustian pot brownie. 

James Poniewozik, Time

The show starts sharp and only gets richer, and it has ideas beyond just being timely. 

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

The right show in the right medium, on the right channel, at the right time.

Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post

"Silicon Valley" mercilessly satirizes the excesses of a world it knows well, yet most of its characters aren't caricatures, and as any number of failures on various networks have demonstrated, that combination is very difficult to pull off. Yet this show does a capable job of skewering entire subcultures while quietly getting the viewer to invest in the alternately mundane and surreal lives of a motley bunch of aspiring tech dudes trying to scramble up the greasy Silicon Valley ladder.

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture

Like any good satire, "Silicon Valley" makes itself easy to understand in context. This story is not ultimately about coding or apps, or even the incredibly specific personality types who inhabit the world of high technology. It's about start-up entrepreneurs who have great ideas but no business sense, and are therefore ripe for exploitation by people who’ve been around the block. 

Todd VanDerWerff, the A.V. Club

HBO’s new comedy is a bit messy, a bit shambling, and often very funny. It's also at once a critique and embrace of the idea of corporate culture, examining how scruffy groups of dudes (because this show is almost all dudes) are gradually homogenized and turned into the sorts of tech geniuses that are easier to sell to the press.

Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly

There's so much money on the table and cultural absurdity to lampoon in this dotcom world. But, as in "Office Space," the heart of the show is watching Richard and his friends struggle to make sense of themselves and their purpose. They're good, weird guys you want to hang out with. 

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times

At times, it has the structure of an old Army film, with Erlich as sergeant, albeit one who takes his own unreliable directions from psychotropic drugs. It is also a little bit of a Frank Capra movie, with Richard the innocent, trying to stay whole in a sea of sharks that introduce themselves as dolphins -- Judge makes cant about "making the world a better place" into a running joke -- and Crew's character as the proximate tough-warm Jean Arthur figure.

Bryan Bishop, The Verge

It’s a great mix -- a little bit insider, a little bit broad appeal, all filtered through the kind of workplace dynamics and relationships that people from all walks of life can relate to. With such a broad setup there are plenty of places the show can go from here, but in many ways "Silicon Valley" has already passed the most important threshold of all. It’s the first show about the startup scene that’s actually good.


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