HBO’s Silicon Valley finally captures the real weirdness of the West-Coast tech bubble

Mike Judge finally gives the Valley the lampoon it deserves

Cast of Mike Judge’s HBO comedy Silicon Valley

(HBO; iStock)

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Silicon Valley, HBO’s subversively smart new tech industry sitcom, is that it took this long to get made.

This is, after all, a world just begging to be lampooned—a place with the highest concentration of billionaires in America and perhaps the lowest concentration of basic social competence. It’s a world of boy kings and obscene paydays, where clueless programmers decide they can solve the world’s problems by teaching the homeless how to code, a world where Napster co-founder Sean Parker was able to rent a tract of old-growth forest to hold a lavish Middle Earth–themed wedding. It is a rich subject for satire.

Despite this, the tech industry has remained largely untouched territory. Last year’s mirthless Vince Vaughan vehicle, The Internship, was a rainbow-coloured, two-hour advertisement for Google. Critical takes on Silicon Valley have tended toward lofty moralizing, positioning themselves too far above the fray to capture the region’s idiosyncratic weirdness. In his novel The Circle, Dave Eggers laid out a vision of a seemingly perfect social networking company that—surprise—quickly reveals itself to be a fascist dystopia. Even 2010’s The Social Network, for all its moody stylishness, was based around the most facile critique imaginable. The final image of a lonely Zuckerberg trying to “friend” his ex-girlfriend wasn’t just dishonest (the real Zuckerberg was happily dating his soon-to-be-wife) but lazy—the easy irony of a middle-aged, technophobic screenwriter. Get it? The guy who invented the “like” was never truly liked.

The real Silicon Valley is weirder, more outrageous and infinitely more amusing, and with his new series, Mike Judge (Office Space, King of the Hill) and his collaborators have contributed the first piece of mass culture art worthy of the subject.

The HBO show centres around software developer Richard Hendricks, played with a mumbling, Aspergian twitchiness by Thomas Middleditch. Richard spends his days working for a Google-esque behemoth called Hooli and his nights living in a “tech incubator”—a ranch-style house of colourful nerds under the nominal tutelage of the pot-smoking alpha nerd Erlich (comedian T. J. Miller, sporting extravagant facial hair). Richard’s passion project is a music search engine called “Pied Piper.” It’s a hopeless app, but buried deep in its code is a compression algorithm that could change the entire tech industry. Richard’s creation ignites a bidding war between Hooli’s sinister CEO (Matt Ross) and his venture capitalist rival (Christopher Evan Welch). Will Richard sell his creation and take the money, or will he band together with his housemates to build a business from the ground up?

This being a television show, his decision isn’t surprising. The show follows the merry band of geeks as they go through the step-by-step work of trying to build a startup, from making a business plan, to deciding who gets points, to finding a new name (because “Pied Piper” has already been trademarked by a sprinkler company, but also because the original Pied Piper was “a predatory flautist who murder[ed] kids in a cave.”)

In these early episodes, much of the pleasure and some of the sharpest satire happens in the margins. Hooli marketing teams brainstorm on a seven-person bike. A doctor pauses, mid-examination, to pitch Richard his idea for an app. Heading to work in the Hooli shuttle bus, Richard worries about being able to afford a new apartment in a place where folks pay $4,500 a month to live with five people. “Jesus, why is it so expensive here?” his friend asks, oblivious to the fact that their very presence is the answer. Moments later, they pass a long-haired, middle-aged woman on a folding bicycle—a leftover from a different San Francisco, doubtlessly soon to be priced out of the area. “Uh-oh, there’s another one. Ms. Palo Alto, 2K-14,” the friend scoffs, and then they’re gone—whisked off to the shiny, isolated campus where they work each day to “make the world a better place.”

This smug sense that programmers are improving the world is a favourite target for Judge. While investment bankers or shoe manufacturers might cynically nod toward their philanthropic efforts, those in the tech world seem to have wholeheartedly bought into the delusion. In a recent New Yorker article a young entrepreneur wondered at the phenomenon. “They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems,” he told journalist George Packer. “It isn’t cynicism—it’s arrogance and ignorance.”

In the first scene of the pilot, a newly minted millionaire takes to the stage at his lavish, carefully designed but persistently uncool launch party. After a song by the new mogul’s “close personal friend” Kid Rock, he launches into his speech. “OK, we’re making a lot of money,” he says. “And yes, we’re disrupting digital media. But most importantly…we’re making the world a better place…through constructing elegant hierarchies of maximum code reuse and extensibility.”

The unearthing of these specific character types is one of the rewards of a show set in a new world. The archetypes feel fresh. The nerds aren’t Stars Wars–watching clichés; they’re ambitious, idiosyncratic individuals. The asshole CEO isn’t a Gordon Gekko–style shark; he’s the kind of person who hires his own New Age guru to assure him that “in the hands of the enlightened, hate can be a tool for great change.”

But while the show has fun with the arrogance of the industry, in the end it also embraces the Silicon Valley mythology. The world is fascinating precisely because there is that potential of seeing something you’ve created zoom around the world. There’s that sense of being at the centre of things, of breaking new ground. As viewers, we want Richard and his friends to succeed. We want them to turn Pied Piper into a success, to create a business that isn’t pretentiously dickish in that specific, Silicon Valley way. It’s fun to mock the messianic pretensions of the tech world, but Judge and his fellow creators are smart enough to realize that this sense of possibility—that a geeky kid working on an app with his pals could genuinely be the next Mark Zuckerberg—makes for great television.