Silicon Valley: an unmissable geek sitcom

Feature Louisa Mellor 7 Apr 2014 - 17:45

Mike Judge's return to workplace comedy, Silicon Valley, is sharply written satire that does more than poke fun at the tech industry...

Farewell the cigar-chomping Hollywood exec and his wheatgrass-juicing starlet, satire’s moved about 300 miles up the Californian coastline. Silicon Valley, with its herds of would-be Zuckerbergs, philanthropic billionaire bosses and trendy campus workplaces, is the new target.

Mike Judge, whose 1999 film Office Space established his antipathy for corporate culture, is back sending up the tech industry’s nauseating self-satisfaction and sticking up for the little guy. This time the little guy is Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), a low-rung employee at Hooli - Silicon Valley’s caricature of Google - whose side project is discovered to contain a “game-changing” compression algorithm that puts him at the centre of a panic attack-inducing bidding war.

Should Richard take the millions he’s offered by Hooli’s vainglorious CEO, or accept a much smaller investment that allows him to keep control of his code? That’s the plot of episode one in this new eight-part series, a half-hour tour of the Valley’s ecosystem, from the bottom-rung coders living five to a bungalow to the billionaire eccentrics trickling their philosophies down from on high via Ted Talks and preening corporate videos.

Very little survives Judge’s acerbic swipe. The uninitiated viewer (me) will struggle to pick out the reality from the exaggeration. Software development host ‘GitHub’, I learn, is unfortunately named but real, while bike meetings in which board-members pedal around the company campus while discussing third quarter share projections, are so far, a fiction. Judge and co-writers Altschuler and Krinsky (both of whom also worked on long-running comedy King Of The Hill) poke fun at the language of the culture with its ‘minimal message-oriented transport layers’ and its ‘integrated multi-platform functionality’ as well as the deification of figures like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

The social inadaquacies of the coders themselves (as distinct from the frat boy-ish “brogrammers” we’re introduced to in the campus’ trendily kitted-out rec area) are also fair game, though the problems techy men have communicating with non-techy women are by no means the show’s only punchline. In its opening party scene, Silicon Valley fluently makes a point that The Big Bang Theory is still wetting its knickers about in its seventh season, and moves swiftly on.

It’s not all easy targets and snorting at the general arseholery of it all. As seen in Richard’s post-panic attack wisecrack about having some money to leave his family when he eventually shoots himself in the head, underneath Silicon Valley is an existential thread about the meaning of success.

The phrase “making the world a better place” might be repeatedly sent up as part of Silicon Valley’s self-regarding rhetoric, but the words echo around the script. With such extraordinary resources (“there’s $40 billion in net worth walking around this party” says one character), why isn’t its world a better place? If the geeks are to inherit the Earth (Richard makes a clumsy comparison between his peers and empire-conquering Vikings in the pilot), what really changes?

There’s a darker portrait too, underneath the silly cars, facial hair, and experimental chairs, of a tech industry whose power is growing at an uncontrollable rate. The men at the top of these companies (and as in life, they’re men, not women, here too) have untold access to personal data. Asking how one potential bidder found him when she turns up unexpectedly outside his doctor’s surgery, Richard learns that her boss is able to locate people via the GPS in their mobile phones. “You don’t know the half of it,” she tells him before wryly adding, “and neither does Congress”. It’s the kind of sharp, accessible commentary that novelist Douglas Coupland, who’s been paddling around the shallow end of this culture since Microserfs and JPod, would give his ironic smiley face emoticon to have written.

While (I'm assured) it's an undeniable treat for those in the know, there’s no need to feel intimidated by the techy subject matter. Just as you don’t have to work in local government to laugh at Parks And Recreation, you don’t have to be fluent in C++ to enjoy Silicon Valley. Nor do you have to live in California to get it. Feeling queasy about pompous Ted Talk culture and taking the piss out of flatulent ultra-rich buffoons who unselfconsciously describe themselves as ‘gurus’ is, it appears, a beautiful universal equaliser.

Silicon Valley currently airs on Sundays on HBO in the US and is due to air on Sky Atlantic in the UK later this year.

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