HBO’s Silicon Valley captures a world you’ve rarely seen depicted with intelligence or care, populated by types that you didn’t know were types; it’s sometimes sweet but often brutal, but thanks to the keen satirical eye of its co-creator, Mike Judge (Office Space), you never feel that you’re watching unfair swipes. It’s about prospectors in what might be the last remaining gold rush, the world of tech in Northern California. That so many of the claims yield fool’s gold gives the characters’ grandiose pronouncements about their own talent a certain poignancy. Everybody on this show wants to be the next Steve Jobs, but a lot of them are lucky just to have jobs. “Do you know how sea turtles have, like, a shit-ton of babies?” asks a tech-industry-lawyer character. “Because most of them die on the way down to the water.”
Silicon Valley, which premieres Sunday, April 6, fuses the white-collar purgatory of Office Space with the Hollywood wonderland of knaves and fools depicted on Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Larry Sanders Show. The place is a human zoo filled with narcissists, most of whom would be insufferable if they weren’t so nakedly needy. The hero, Richard (Thomas Middleditch), is a classic Mike Judge everyman, with an added dose of brilliance and perhaps a mild case of Asperger’s. He lives and works in a ranch-style house known as an “incubator.” Its owner is Erlich (T. J. Miller), an arrogant pothead who sold his own start-up years ago and rolled the money over into this for-profit commune, where would-be entrepreneurs live in exchange for promising Erlich 10 percent of anything they sell. On Entourage, this setup would have yielded a nonstop series of deranged bacchanals, but here it seems about as randy as a meeting of a high-school yearbook committee, minus the girls. Like Silicon Valley the place, Silicon Valley the show is so male that it seems as if somebody dropped a bomb in Palo Alto that eliminated most of the women. The writers mock this borderline monoculture at every turn. The show kicks off at a private party at which Kid Rock sings but no one dances and the segregation of men and women is so drastic that a character likens it to “a Hasidic wedding.” The house’s lone nonwhite resident, the master coder Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani of Portlandia), gets expediently misidentified as a Mexican by Erlich and racially profiled everywhere he goes. Meanwhile, one of Dinesh’s housemates, the Canadian information architect Gilfoyle (Martin Starr of Freaks and Geeks), is an illegal immigrant and drug user who worships Satan, yet he seems to just glide through life.
When Richard unwittingly hits the jackpot with Pied Piper, an app that searches audio files to make sure they don’t contain copyrighted material, it looks like the boys in the house might be poised for a breakthrough. The app ignites a bidding war between Hooli—a spoof of Google, founded by Gavin Belson (Matt Ross of Big Love)—and a venture capitalist named Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), who lives to one-up him. As it turns out, neither rival actually wants Pied Piper for what it was meant to do; they’re interested in an algorithm Richard wrote to compress data. The boys in Erlich’s house would get stomped on if not for Jared (Zach Woods of The Office), an eerily relaxed and polite young man who leaves his cushy job at Hooli to join the Pied Piper team. Jared quickly proves himself an MVP by organizing the unruly crew and absorbing their unending stream of casual disrespect, much of it a by-product of working in a field filled with brainiac types yammering about compression and firewalls and bragging about their Java chops.
If you’re not tech savvy, these details may sound foreign and off-putting. But don’t worry: 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. “Shouldn’t you more than kind of know where you’re going?” Dinesh asks Richard—the key question, really, and a piercing one, because Richard has no idea how to build a music-search program into a compression juggernaut, much less guide it to market.
The show is also about how one percenters treat both their own companies and the wider world as personal playgrounds. The bidding war to capture Pied Piper pits Hooli’s founder Gavin against Peter, who has resented Gavin’s success for decades even though he’s had plenty of his own. As Peter’s head of operations tells Richard, “These are billionaires … Humiliating each other is worth more to them than we’ll make in a lifetime.” Both are essentially boring men who strive to define themselves as “fascinating” through external signifiers such as clothes (Gavin dresses in black) and vehicles (Peter drives a super-skinny prototype electric car). Their swaggering would evoke the alpha-male peacocks that Michael Douglas used to play in the ’80s, if Douglas were a terrible actor. Only their bank accounts prevent them from being called out as the socially maladjusted blunderers they are. As Erlich points out in the show’s opening party sequence, such men woo women with ostentatious displays of wealth and power because they’ll never be able to do it with looks or charm. And this is ultimately a huge (if unspoken) motivating factor behind the incubatees’ attempts to strike it rich. Silicon Valley suggests that a lot of these guys got into the tech business for the same reason that rock bands still flourish in high school: Because average-looking people need to get laid, too. (At least if you can play the guitar it happens immediately. The tech guys have to wait for a public offering.)
The show’s version of machismo is hilarious, and feels new. Silicon Valley captures the pack-wolf preening of guys whose muscles are located mostly above their necklines. Gavin, in particular, never does anything the easy way when the difficult way will let him power-trip by showing off some new toy. What should have been a simple telephone conference call becomes a high-tech disaster, with Gavin appearing in a glitchy, life-size hologram, à la Darth Vader in a Star Wars movie. When Gavin wants to celebrate his own alleged utopian impulses, he says aloud to the music-search software in his office, “Play John Lennon’s ‘Imagine.’ ” “Cuing John Wayne in a mansion,” the voice intones. That, in its sly way, is what Silicon Alley is about: how John Lennon’s “Imagine” became John Wayne in a mansion.
*This article appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.