Mike Judge knows the American dream is an ever-evolving concept. For some it used to be about a starry-eyed escape to Hollywood or making it in the Big Apple because if you can make it there then you can darn well make it anywhere.
But that’s so 20th century.
Today the American dream exists in a virtual space and its tangible capital is Silicon Valley, California. In the valley, the stakes are higher, the decisions weigh a little more and the reality is that potential is sexy.
Before creating two polarizing cartoon shitheads in 90s, Judge (Office Space, King of the Hill, Bevis and Butthead) was a programmer trying to find his way in a still developing Silicon Valley during the late 80s. After he labored through endless nights as a techie and never acquired a stake in the video company he worked for, Judge ditched the valley altogether and went on to become an acclaimed procreator of funny.
Since Judge left, something called the dot com boom changed how we live and the valley became America’s promised land. Even though Judge cashed out of the startup game a decade too early, there is no one better to bring the world of venture capitalists and startup incubators to the small screen. Tonight he returns to television as the writer/director/executive producer of HBO’s excellent new comedy, Silicon Valley.
Set in present day Palo Alto, Silicon Valley spends its first episode pondering and panic attacking through the new embodiment of the American dream, where potential and promise trump the steady hand of reality. What stands for motivation in northern California isn’t the idea of fame but the allure of material power – the promise of greater riches and the houses that “talk to girls” so you don’t have to. Silicon Valley is a place where you put a showy filter on a picture of your mansion and use it for your Tinder (or Grinder) profile.
The show kicks off with a group of six programmers salivating over the billionaire lifestyle. They’re in awe of their surroundings, a bumping house party for the Silicon Valley elite. To the left there’s Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. Outside Kid Rock is playing a private backyard concert presumably just so one can give a shit. Go ahead and slurp down some more expensive, drinkable shrimp. There’s plenty where that came from.
To the outsiders, the group of programmers that will anchor the series, this is the life they are building toward. It’s the mountaintop and they are only one innovative algorithm away. They can feel it. After all, there is plenty of money flying around Silicon Valley and the odds are it’s going to hit them eventually.
And it does in a big way. The show quickly takes us from dream to reality when Richard (played by Candian actor Thomas Middleditch) develops a program pitched as the “Google of music.” Richard works at a company called Hooli and after a couple of programmers, or “Bro-grammers,” realize he’s found a way to search compressed files in lightening speed, his prototype becomes the next big investment opportunity.
Where there is an opportunity there is competition, and it comes from Hooli’s CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) and billionaire entrepreneur Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch). They are venture capitalists that buy up potential without a clue of knowing its real value. These characters personify the satire Judge was shooting for when crafting Silicon Valley. Judge sees through the Silicon Valley façade for what it really is. The valley CEOs and billionaires have money and power but their stated end game is making the world a better place. Really they are just looking for another toy, the next thing they can attach their name to. Plenty of people have Steve Jobs money. Few have that legacy.
As the episode comes to a close, Richard decides to turn down $10 million from his former boss and go with Peter Gregory’s lower offer and bigger promise. Richard first consults with Erlich, a partner and owner of a startup incubator, who is played wonderfully by the series’ potential breakout star TJ Miller. Rounding out the cast is Richard’s best friend Big Head (Josh Brener), and his programming buddies Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani). The chemistry between the crew is there, although they had little more than a handful of one-liners in this episode.
The writing is sharp and the comedy is dry yet quick witted as we’ve come to expect from a Judge production. Yet it’s Judge’s underlying statement on the self-fulfilling motives of the tech world that gives the show a sense of purpose. In a town where everyone thinks they have an idea that will strike gold, his protagonist, Richard, has more earnest ambitions. He’s essentially a likable Zuckerberg. In his address to his crew of programmers he talks about not claiming to make the world a better place all the time like the rest of the valley.
“Let’s make it happen,” he says after initially regurgitating Apple and Nike’s motivating slogans.
In the tech world, you can spend years trying to get your foot in the door. When you do you’ll have one chance to show that you can deliver. Silicon Valley showed extraordinary promise in its inaugural entry. Judge’s product is viable, exactly what we expected from a Silicon Valley veteran. Now the real work begins.