When you create a new start-up company, don’t forget to thank Satan.
This is the most important lesson imparted in “Minimum Viable Product,” the premiere episode of Mike Judge’s new HBO comedy, Silicon Valley. You thank the Dark Lord because he is financing your company in his most popular present-day human disguise, the smooth-talking yet socially inept billionaire. As with all deals of this nature, there’s the initial temptation, the torrid seduction, and the honeymoon phase. This is followed by trouble in paradise, usually in the guise of a bigger, sexier version of your product idea. The last phase is either a plummet into obsolescence or a hostile takeover. Either way, you technologically die, and the devil gets his due.
The suspense of Silicon Valley comes from awaiting and determining which ghastly last-phase outcome will befall Pied Piper, the company founded by Richard Hendricks. Judge’s cult-classic movie Office Space endeared itself to me and my fellow information-technology colleagues with its “sticking it to the oppressive home-office” happy ending. But a lot has changed in the 15 years since Office Space, and I sense that a less optimistic coda awaits us at the end of this series.
Since its release, the dreary, energy-sapping headquarters of Office Space has undergone a radical transformation. I was once told by an older and wiser programmer that if the job offered the comforts of home, it did so because you were never going home again. The office of Silicon Valley’s evil empire of a tech company, Hooli, is a masterpiece of set design I can’t wait to explore more fully in upcoming episodes. The attention to detail, from the charts on the walls to the billboards and the strange yet comfortable furniture, is striking. The set is so brightly lit, it demands sunglasses. The environment screams out, How can you be miserable here? You know you LOVE ME and you never want to leave my multicolored, work-related bosom!
Coupled with creature comforts like interdepartmental playdates is a fervent dose of fundamentalist corporate evangelism. Not only is Hooli your employer, it’s also your belief system. When people like Gary speak of Hooli’s chief innovation officer and founder Gavin Belson, it is in the hushed tones of undying reverence usually reserved for deities. Belson appears on the corporate bus TV screen spouting singsongy Hooli scripture verses like “It takes change to make change.” We’re also told he’s “committed to social justice,” as if he were a lyric from Hair.
Despite all this, our main character Richard is still as tired and uninspired as Ron Livingston’s Peter Gibbons. Prices in the San Francisco/Silicon Valley area are so exorbitant that Richard enters into a deal with Erlich Bachmann (T.J. Miller), a millionaire who lets his tenants live rent-free in exchange for 10 percent of the profits of anything they develop using the computers in his house. It’s the techie equivalent of Jack Nicholson’s Batman deal. Under Erlich’s roof are Richard’s current co-workers and future employees, Big Head, Dinesh, and Gilfoyle.
Like Silicon Valley itself, Richard sees that the corporate pomp, circumstance, and pageantry is merely a diversionary tactic, a false sense of security lulling the faithful to sleep. In his spare time, he’s been working on the aforementioned Pied Piper, a music website Richard cannot seem to describe without overcomplicating what it does. Middlechurch’s characterization is spot-on; I’ve known many an extremely smart programmer who couldn’t easily explain things to save his life. Becoming the president of his own company will make Richard even more confusing.
The use of language is shaping up to be one of Silicon Valley’s themes, and I don’t mean the realistic profanity uttered by its lead characters. (You’d cuss like Richard Pryor too if you fought code exceptions all day.) Judge and his co-writers John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky clearly enjoy mocking the pompous descriptions tech companies employ to describe their wares. These sentences always sound good, but with the simplest, most lackadaisical inspection, one finds nothing but absolute bullshit underneath. Note the common phrase in both these examples:
“We’re making the world a better place through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility.”
“Hooli is making the world a better place through minimal messaging transport layers.”
Many of the programmers in Silicon Valley feel the need to overexplain everything, even if the other person is smart enough to get it. Since I’ve been a programmer for 27 years, please allow me to translate the above quotes. In both instances, you’ve “been had, took, hoodwinked, and bamboozled” by technobabble. This is how we talk when we don’t want you to ask questions about what the hell it is we’re doing. This will either scare you away, or shame you into not making further comments because you’re afraid we’ll think you’re an idiot.
Don’t believe the hype, people. REBEL!!!
Rebellion is on the menu for Richard, who winds up with two different versions of the Devil in Disguise wooing him for the extremely valuable compression engine that runs Pied Piper. Gavin Belson, his current employer, offers him up to $10 million for it, and Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), another even more eccentric billionaire, offers far less money but 95 percent ownership for Richard in this new company. It’s the classic case of art versus commerce. Judging by future episode clips, Richard’s artsy decision will come back to haunt him with financial and fraternal vengeance.
Gregory is the show’s most intriguing character thus far. His car is the best sight gag in this episode, and his philosophy is controversially delicious. Gregory offers $100K to anyone who drops out of college, calling the institution “a cruel and expensive joke on the poor and the middle class.” He cites that Steve Jobs and other tech giants either didn’t go to college or dropped out. (I hope Silicon Valley explores this further, as the debate over whether college is necessary is an interesting one.)
Richard uses the threat of returning to college to get Peter Gregory’s attention. Pitching the Pied Piper idea (poorly), Richard is questioned by Gregory’s assistant, Monica (Amanda Crew). She’s smart, sympathetic, and, in keeping with the actual ratio of males-to-females in the IT world, the only female main character on Silicon Valley. I’ll be disappointed if the show reduces her to somebody’s love interest. I’d like to see her play a major business role in Richard’s new company instead.
“Minimum Viable Product” ends with that big-ups to Rosemary’s Baby Daddy, delivered as a toast by Gilfoyle, a self-proclaimed “Lavayan Satanist with some theistic tendencies.” That Gilfoyle registers as the most realistic of the programmers tells you a lot about my profession, and also about the humor Judge and company employ. In his revisit to the tech world, Judge replaces the Geto Boys with Kid Rock, a move that further convinces me to brace for darker times ahead.
I’m jonesing on the show’s realism — this is really a “head-nodding in recognition” treat for IT folks — but I don’t think it’s too inside for anyone else. Here’s hoping that the show lives up to yet another of its bullshit corporate lines: “We can only achieve greatness if first, we achieve goodness.”
Now excuse me while I check the statuses on my Nip Alert.