Beta test: ‘Silicon Valley’ is spot-on satire


[A version of this review appears in the May 28, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.]

Last week I talked about how Louis CK’s comedy represented an evolution in American masculinity and privilege. While it’s not my intention to belabor that point, HBO’s Silicon Valley is another series that examines competing views of maleness as it skewers the male-dominated culture and unchecked hubris of the tech industry.

The series, which is in the middle of a strong sophomore season, is well observed and effortlessly funny. Co-creator and co-executive producer Mike Judge has always had a sharp eye for satire. Shows like Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill were smart takes on teenage nihilism and American conservatism respectively. His 1999 film Office Space, was instantly identifiable to anyone who has ever worked soul-crushing job. Even Idiocracy (2006), one of his lesser works, was eerily prescient in its apocalyptic portrayal of America’s decline. For evidence, simply watch an hour of cable news.

For those of you who missed season one, Silicon Valley follows the launch of an underdog startup called Pied Piper whose file compression app could revolutionize the industry. The ensemble cast is almost unfairly stacked with comic heavyweights.

Thomas Middleditch plays Richard, the show’s mild-mannered protagonist whose deadpan delivery and stilted cadence shows glimmers of Bob Newhart. Surrounding him are Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani as a programmers Gilfoyle and Dinesh, who provide solid comic relief as they torture Richard. TJ Miller gets to be big and loud as Erlich, Pied Paper’s first investor and self-deluded stoner. Zach Woods is the show’s secret weapon as Jared, Pied Piper’s CFO and resident doormat.

Amanda Crew rounds out the cast as Monica. The show’s sole female character in season one, she is a liaison to the Pied Piper’s venture capital investor, and a potential romantic foil for Richard.

The show has been slagged for its lack of female characters. While that under-representation can be explained as an honest reflection of the industry, season two attempts to correct things with the addition of Suzanne Cryer as Monica’s painfully awkward boss Laurie Bream, and Alice Wetterlund as Carla, a puckish programmer who holds her own with the men of Pied Piper.

Season two sees the team working to get their product to market before its major competitor Hooli beats them to it. Hooli is a Google-type company that acts as Pied Piper’s major antagonist. Judge uses it as a vehicle for some of the show’s most trenchant digs on the industry, portraying Hooli founder Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) as a tech bro whose sense of self-importance borders on megalomania.

Judge finds humor in specificity. Silicon Valley is heavy on tech jargon, lending the show credibility from industry wonks for knowing the world, but never leaves the common viewer out in the cold. A set piece in last season’s finale demonstrated the melding of humor and jargon as the cast joined forces for quite possibly the smartest dick joke ever told.

That may sound like the sort of regressive bro humor I’d normally bemoan, but here the joke is well earned and sticks the landing. Like all good comedy, context trumps content, and intentionality trumps all. Silicon Valley mines such juvenile behavior for laughs. Where a lesser show might be content to go for the easy jokes, Judge takes a more critical approach unpacking the industry’s overwhelming maleness while making subtle jabs at its inherent sexism and lack of diversity.

However, the Pied Piper team, which makes up the core cast, is likable and not at all menacing. The guys are geeks — socially awkward, shy and insecure. In contrast, supporting characters often embody the worst tendencies of the real world Silicon Valley. The alpha male bro-grammer culture that has overtaken the tech world in the last decade or so is in full display here.

In season two, Chris Diamantopoulos arrives as Russ, one such billionaire bro who becomes an angel investor in Pied Piper. While we’ve the show has shown us these types from the beginning, Russ’ bro-ness is off the charts, looking like he stepped off the set of Entourage. He drives showy sports cars, spends thousands of dollars on lunches, and berates his Russian bombshell of a girlfriend in front of people.

Russ is total ass who exists in contrast to the mild-mannered, introverted men of Pied Piper. Even Erlich, who fancies himself an alpha on the level of Russ, is capable of humanity and humility. Erlich may sometimes be a jerk, but deep down he’s a good person.

Yet this examination of maleness is incidental to the Judge’s larger satirical take on the tech industry. Behind the platitudes of nobility and (often well-intended) altruism, this is still a world of capitalists who are trying to make a buck. Judge’s critiques are neither petty nor shallow. His deep knowledge of the world he’s lampooning (he’s a former programmer) lends him authority, which he leverage to great effect. Judge recognizes the industry’s significance as well as its capacity for good. But that never stops him from finding ways to take the piss out of it.