Hollywood is the unequivocal center of the entertainment industry. But with the world experiencing a massive technology boom over the last decade, largely caused by the massive concentration of computer programmers living in the northern California region known as Silicon Valley, television and film producers are starting to find ripe material in this quiet suburban setting.
The most splashy of these projects has undoubtedly been James Franco’s Palo Alto, which received a publicity boost earlier this month when Franco made headlines for toeing the line between his role in the upcoming film (as a teacher who hooks up with one of his students) and real life, after exchanging suggestive texts with an underage fan.
Preliminary reviews for Palo Alto have been quite positive — but it will have stiff competition from the smaller screen for the most amusing portrayal of NorCal’s high-tech hub.
On Monday, HBO renewed Silicon Valley, a new single-camera comedy from Mike Judge, who already has experience helming a brilliant workplace satire in 1999’s cult classic Office Space. Silicon Valley proves that Judge knows what it takes to succeed in the world of cable television too, more than two decades after he entered the mainstream with MTV’s Beavis and Butt-head and hit it big with FOX’s King in the Hill. Considering the blue-collar subjects of those two shows, it might surprise some to see Judge focus on the decidedly white-collar setting of Palo Alto. But after taking in a few episodes of Silicon Valley, it’s clear that Judge has spent enough time in the South Bay to accurately parody its inhabitants with a sense of subtle bite that could evoke chortles from even the driest of the software engineers he’s making fun of.
The show follows a group of young coders who toil for a big-name software giant during the day and try to develop their own apps by night, hoping they’ll make something appealing enough to subsequently sell for millions of dollars and live comfortably for the rest of their days. The crew all lives together under the watch of slobby stoner Erlich (T.J. Miller), who has already cashed in and hopes to “give back” by funding rent for the entire group at a nerdy bachelors’ pad in exchange for a piece of whatever app they create. As the story begins, however, the most promising thing any of them has come up with is “NipAlert” (exactly what it sounds like) — until Richard (Thomas Middleditch) unwittingly creates a ground-breaking algorithm while working on his fledging app, Pied Piper, that catches the attention of head honchos across the Valley.
This concept has obviously found its target audience on HBO, as Silicon Valley’s premiere marked the network’s most-watched comedy debut since Hung in 2009 — an impressive feat considering the lack of star power in the cast. It has probably benefitted ratings-wise from serving as the centerpiece of an absolute blockbuster Sunday night on HBO — Game of Thrones at 9 p.m., Silicon Valley at 10 p.m., Veep at 10:30 p.m. — but Judge’s latest project really doesn’t need to be aided by that gigantic lead-in (and who watches television live anymore, anyway? Just use your — wink wink — HBOGo account).
It might be hard for some to truly sympathize with Richard, who at first comes off as a relatively inaccessible main character — too shy and boring, despite the occasional showing of confidence necessary to function as Pied Piper’s CEO. But I suspect that as the show goes along, and Pied Piper climbs the ladder that all startups must take on in order to achieve success, Richard will become more engaging to viewers as he grows into his executive role while still maintaining the endearing naiveté that makes him a viable protagonist in the first place.
Miller’s performance stands out among the other programmers, as he is truly excellent at perfecting the balance between confidently slimy and likeable that many techies have exhibited while riding to the top (ahem, Steve Jobs). Lesser shows would be brought down by the idle racial stereotypes that Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) occasionally throw at each other, but Starr and Nanjiani combine for so much otherwise witty banter that those low points can be easily forgiven.
A deeply weird venture capitalist named Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) also lurks as an advisor and potential investor for Pied Piper — although it appears he won’t be for much longer, hinting at a major plot shift in the next couple weeks. Welch died of lung cancer in December with only five-and-a-half (out of eight) episodes of the show’s inaugural season completed. This seemingly throws a wrench into Silicon Valley’s story arc considering Gregory’s prominent involvement in the first few episodes, although Judge says that Welch’s passing won’t drastically affect the plotline. Luckily, it shouldn’t affect the number of laughs the show produces, either — on the most recent episode, Gregory’s winding side plot involving Burger King and the sesame seeds it uses was a bit too quirky and ultimately superfluous.
Overall, though, Silicon Valley appears poised to thrive. The show pointedly teases Judge’s techie targets over their ambitions to “make the world a better place” through iPhone apps and file-compressing software. Silicon Valley, in all likelihood, won’t even make as lasting of an impact on the world as those innovations do, or even as impactful as Office Space was on the comedy industry — but the entertainment world is undoubtedly a better place with Mike Judge in it.
Will Laws is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also the Associate Managing Editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Spoiler Alert,” runs every other Wednesday.