Silicon Valley might be too compelling for its own good.
Whenever anyone asks me what I think of Silicon Valley, I tell them I like it but I don’t really think of it as a comedy. This is a dumb statement – Silicon Valley is a comedy through-and-through. It’s got the pedigree (it was created by Mike Judge, the satiric genius behind Office Space, Idiocracy, and King of the Hill!), it’s got the ultra-funny actors (the main five are UCB’s Thomas Middleditch, Freaks and Geeks/Party Down’s Martin Starr, standup’s Kumail Nanjiani, The Office’s Zach Woods, and T.J. Miller from lots of things but mostly that one super-underrated phone ad where he sings “like a big old sheet, girl”) and it’s got, as I usually forget, the jokes. But somewhere in the back of my head I have this creeping, uninformed outsider’s belief that it’s just accurate.
HBO isn’t TV, so it doesn’t do sitcoms. Besides Lucky Louie, the network has never done anything close to a three-camera sitcom, and the multicam shows they’ve aired flout way more than just the angles and the laugh track. The premium network’s comedies exist in unusually real worlds, and they’ve dealt with this realism this in various ways. Recent shows like Girls, Looking, Togetherness and Doll & Em are often half-hour comedies in runtime only, appearing and behaving more like little dramas with witty moments. Foundational comedies Entourage and Sex and the City featured absurdly low stakes: Will Vince get this or that role, will Carrie break up with this guy who isn’t Chris Noth or date this guy who is, will Turtle find his lost bag of weed, will Samantha learn to deal with this man’s unusual penis, be it too big, too small, too circular, an innie? Yes. Always. Other shows had stakes but needed something else to mark them as laughable: Bored to Death worked in genre, Flight of the Conchords in music, Chris Lilley’s shows in character work, The Comeback in reality TV and celebrity desperation.
The stakes on Silicon Valley are almost too high. This would make it seem like the perfect match for another show with decidedly un-Entourage-y rewards and pitfalls: Veep. It is, but they are fundamentally different shows. Veep’s humor often comes at a line-by-line basis – the staff’s casual cruelty overshadowing the larger, problem-filled picture. At the end of an episode of Veep, I don’t think, “Oh man, America is in trouble.” I think, “Oh man, Kent nailed Dan. Nailed him to the wall.”
Meanwhile, I am genuinely concerned about Pied Piper’s continued existence. I end episodes thinking, “Pied Piper lives to fight another day!” or “Pied Piper is ska-rewed.” And I kind of forget that I’m watching a comedy.
A real tech human could (and probably would) feel free to correct me, but Pied Piper’s central mission isn’t funny at all: Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch, an understated virtuoso of nerves) created a groundbreaking compression algorithm, one that can make files negligible in size while remaining awesome in all the other ways you want files to be awesome. As the innovative technology to build an imaginary company around, the compression algorithm is perfect. From allowing users to store a bananas number of files to making streaming video flawless, it’s the key to so many tech problems. When Pied Piper (or their rivals, Nucleus and Endframe) come up with new applications for the tech – livestreaming events, partnering with porn sites – they feel like semi-inevitable strokes of genius. The mistakes that the Pied Piper team makes feel similarly obvious and obscure. “Of course they shouldn’t have done that but how could they have known!” is something I think a lot during this show. The twists traps of this unfamiliar-but-very-real world are almost enough for me. This show is what I might wish Halt and Catch Fire was, if I had ever been interested in watching Halt and Catch Fire (nah).
And, after a season and a half, I really, really care that Richard Hendricks gets his due. The show has done an impressive job of slowly bringing viewers to the side of the anxious, quiet, night-sweating founder. Despite being poised to be everyone’s favorite relatable dude, a socially awkward billionaire, Richard is the ultimate underdog. He is riddled with his world’s ultimate disadvantage: friction. In this Silicon Valley, the common denominator is slime, and Richard is the only person who isn’t prepared for a spontaneous Slip N Slide. Hooli founder Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) is a smooth and cunning blowhard. Pied Piper investor Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopolus) is simultaneously unctuous and nakedly self-involved. Incubator founder and stoned house mother Ehrlich Bachman (Miller) is smarmy and grasping. Even hacker/manipulator Guilfoyle (Starr), cowardly liar Dinesh (Nanjiani) and prank-happy New Female Character Carla (the way-funny Alice Wetterlund) are slick in their own ways.
But Richard Hendrick is, if anything, not lubricated. He’s the opposite of oily – but not watery, because you can also slip in water. He’s glue or sand or whatever the appropriate ending to this metaphor is. Everything – except for creating a groundbreaking compression algorithm – is difficult for him. He falls short everywhere: introducing himself as CEO, negging a prospective investor, and storming an office. Everyone thinks they can get one over on him. He rarely gets the reaction he expects. He never has the upper hand. He sputters short. He’s the perfect hero.
When I think of Mike Judge and satire, I first think of Idiocracy, because Idiocracy is great and terrifying and we are probably barreling towards it. But it’s also an over-the-top fever dream of a future where we water our crops with idiot soda. Silicon Valley is more like Office Space: a subtler, more cutting kind of satire. Here Judge’s ironic reality feels just steps removed from mockumentaries like The Office or Parks and Recreation, which poke gentler, semi-realistic fun at our regular world. A lot of the actual jokes on Silicon Valley come from these same type of uncomfortable workplace interactions (especially any moment between Martin Starr’s chaotic evil Gilfoyle and Kumail Nanjiani’s haplessly scheming Dinesh). These exchanges are funny, but not as biting as Veep’s, and not more memorable than Pied Piper’s arc. As a satire, it is sometimes imperceptible. The fun-house mirror that Silicon Valley holds up to the tech world or that Office Space holds up to cubicle life makes heads only kind of bulbous, legs only a little stumpy. Compared to real corporate middle managers or tech billionaire moguls, Bill Lumbergh and Gavin Belson seem almost kind. Belson’s conception of failure as “pre-success,” is absurd and hilarious and literally something tech dudes have been peddling for years.
The details on Silicon Valley are so devastating that they don’t seem like jokes. When Dinesh pretends to be a guy-on-the-go to impress some hot Tinder chick named Karen, his attempts at hipness (claiming to be at a screening of Jaws at an old hotel pool, or out eating Ethiopian tapas) are the truth. And you know what they say about why something is funny. The names of the porn sites printed onto table tents and propped up in front of thoughtful looking middle-aged people at the porn peddler’s convention “Adult 2.0” are hilarious because they most definitely exist. The progression of them presented deadpan make them mind-bendingly funny; “Ectopoint” or “Zoltbase” become hilarious when bundled with “Non-Consensual Santa,” “Porn Hospice,” and “Poop on My Wife.”
Smart money would say that Pied Piper is safe – without Pied Piper there isn’t a show, just like most shows and their central organizing principle – but in this sharp, sharp satire, success never feels assured. In this Silicon Valley, like the real Silicon Valley, complete failure (ahem, “pre-success”) looms as a possibility. It’s not funny, it’s clever and sly and great.
Finally, dat perfect way that TJ Miller flips his hair as Ehrlich. Like a big old sheet, girl.