By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist April 7, 2014 at 10:08AM
Over the course of his career, Mike Judge has always been a keen observer of the absurd, mundane minutiae of the work world. Of course, "Office Space" is his crowing achievement, pitch perfectly capturing the soul crushing ennui of working 9 to 5. Judge returned to the well with "Extract," something a bit more screwball, less focused and as a result, less satisfying. And while Strickland Propane of "King Of The Hill" was another opportunity to skewer working life, it was more of an added texture to the All American Hank Hill than a particular point for parody. However, "Silicon Valley" returns Judge full throttle to the arena of clock-punching, management and ambition, with the tech world setting providing a fresh twist, but with results decidedly mixed across the first five episodes sent to press.
Season premiere "Minimum Viable Product"—now available in full on YouTube for the next three weeks (watch below)—amusingly sets the stage for the road ahead. Richard (Thomas Middleditch), Big Head (Josh Brener), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) are tech employees by day, and hackers/coders by night, each working on their own projects while living in an "incubator," run by Erlich (T.J. Miller). He's a former programmer who pocketed a pile of money selling his tech startup Aviato (which he insists on always pronouncing with a ridiculous Spanish accent). With that money he purchased a home in Silicon Valley, where he lets up-and-comers stay for peanuts, in exchange for a 10% stake in whatever they're dreaming up. And Erlich's payday could soon be coming.
Richard is the mind behind the (terribly named) Pied Piper, a service that essentially allows songwriters to find out if their music infringes on the copyright of an pre-existing recordings. However, it's soon discovered that a data file compression algorithm he used for an otherwise clunky mp3 player he put together is turning some heads. And it's that little bit of coding that starts a bidding war for his company between Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), Richard's boss at the Google-esque Hooli, and the hugely respected but eccentric investor Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch channeling an autistic Bill Gates). And Richard is given something of a Sophie's choice: either selling his company outright for $10 million to Belson, or keep majority control by taking $200,000 from Peter Gregory for a 10% stake. The stress of the decision brings on a panic attack, but with a bit of prodding by Peter's head of operations Monica (Amanda Crew), and promises that he'll get the kind of support he won't get elsewhere when launching his own company, Richard turns down Gavin, rolls the dice with Peter and brings along his hacker pals to his new company.
And over the first of half of the season, "Silicon Valley" chronicles the coming-of-business-age of a young man suddenly given the keys to the future he's always dreamed of. Erlich advises his meal ticket that he'll need to be an "asshole" if he's going to succeed, with Richard suddenly realizing that every decision he makes has an immediate bearing on whether he'll make it, or wind up washed ashore on the rocks of other failed tech start-ups. "Silicon Valley" presents a world where failure is common, success is hard won, and it's not always the most innovative and best products that rise to the fore. It's a place where even the guy working at the liquor store has an idea for a mobile app, or a graffiti artist does work for stock options. It adds some definite real stakes to a show that is otherwise fairly light on its feet, while providing a fairly accurate portrayal of an industry that's not see very often on the big or small screen.
And there is something admirable about the show's dedication to making the setting as authentic as possible, with the characters often rattling off dialogue heavy in tech/geek speak, where hexadecimal jokes can be the biggest laugh. And it'll be interesting to see if that kind of specificity can carry over to a mainstream audience; "Silicon Valley" makes the geeks on "Big Bang Theory" look amateur by comparison. And yet, one wishes the complexity given to the backdrop of the show, would've been brought to bear on the characters as well. The core quartet — Richard, Dinesh, Gilfoyle and Erlich — are largely one dimensional, filling in necessary character tropes (and even though Judge does sly acknowledges this within the show itself early on, that wink doesn't quite compensate). Richard finds Middleditch doing his standard meek/awkward thing; Dinesh is driven but even by the mid-point of the season, it's hard to define him other than the token minority; Starr's Gilfoyle is essentially Roman from "Party Down" airlifted into this show while Miller makes the most of his mushroom loving, opportunistic Erlich (and he gets some of the best one liners). But the characters largely interact with each other and don't have much in the way of relationships outside their cluster, and while perhaps this may also fall into the category of necessary accuracy, it also leaves the ensemble playing the same few notes.
And unfortunately, this limited palette already shows big signs of running out of steam by the fifth episode, "Signalling Risk," a noticeably low energy, mostly laugh free effort that already finds the plot of the show somewhat stalling, even with the introduction of a ticking clock device in the plot. And elsewhere, Judge's distinct flourishes don't always work, particularly with an overlong gag about a futuristic piece of hologram technology that doesn't work, feeling like a leftover from "Idiocracy." All while Gavin Belson's constant consultations with a personal guru become repetitive, and so too does the overly oddball, anti-social antics of Peter Gregory.
But there is enough entertainment in the early going of "Silicon Valley" to make it worth a shot, and these are the kind of kinks that particularly in the first season of comedies, the writers tend to iron out by season two (just look at "The Office" and "Parks & Recreation" as examples of shows that really found their footing after their initial runs). "Silicon Valley" works best when pitting the characters against a culture that even for those within it, can be surreal and otherworldly in the strangest ways. And it should be commended never for belittling the characters on the show in pursuit of laughs. And yet, when "Silicon Valley" veers away from the sharp, tech comedy it knows so well, the results are far less interesting and unimaginative (for example, an entire subplot dedicated to a mushroom trip that, shocker, ends badly). "Silicon Valley" has booted up something with a lot of promise, but it's success will be determined on how the latter half of the season lands, and whether or not Judge can tinker with the formula in the right way to make the (season) 2.0 version shine.