“Do people really want to watch a comedy about people loving being rich?” The Thick of It’s Armando Iannucci once asked in The New Yorker when recalling the reasons for shelving his pitch to HBO about an internet start-up. “And then The Social Network came out and we thought, ‘Oh. They do.’”
If David Fincher’s 2010 release was the beta test for the tech revolution on screen then 2014 could be the year it is ready for mass market with Silicon Valley (Wednesday, 9pm, Sky Atlantic), a beautifully observed, tech-savvy sitcom from Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge that is ironically broadcast in a double bill with Iannucci’s Veep.
Capitalizing on the enduring popularity of The Big Bang Theory, Judge presents a more mature take on the geek-chic comedy genre (meaning less gags, more scathing observations), examining with humour the absurd, cut-and-thrust hub of venture capitalism in which the show is set instead of simply laughing at how socially maladroit nerds can be.
Already recommissioned for a second season, Silicon Valley follows twenty-something Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), a nebbish programmer who develops a music app called “Pied Piper” that is treated with derision by everyone until it is discovered that it contains a “game changing” data compression algorithm potentially worth billions. The discovery immediately sparks a bidding war between eccentric venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) and the polo-necked CEO of ginormous internet corporation, Hooli (basically Google but with an even more irritating name).
Along with a clutch of great throwaway lines (“Steve Jobs was just a poser. He didn’t even write code.”), Judge uses his own experiences of working for a Silicon Valley start-up shortly after college to deliver a feast of insider observations on the tech-genius culture, such as the mutual disdain between software writers and programmers, the hostility among tech folk towards Steve Jobs and the proliferation of terrible style fads (FiveFinger shoes, anyone?) that only middle-aged dads should think are cool.
Within this is a strangely-resonant satire on how these social misfits deal with unimaginable wealth at such a young age. Last night’s episode opened with an incredibly awkward house party where Kid Rock is hired to perform to a dwindling crowd of dweeby techies and the boisterous host obnoxiously exclaims, “Kid Rock is the poorest person here, except you guys”. They are, basically, trying to live the lives of rock stars – or at least how they envisage rock stars live – because it’s the only example they have of how to use wealth. Yet they also feel the need to justify such lavish expenditures by spouting philosophical platitudes about how their technology is saving the world, when in fact their product is available for “maximum code reuse and extensibility” to the highest bidder.
Though this world is smartly-observed and cuttingly satirised, the characterisation is reliant on common stereotypes and empty pastiches of notable tech figures. Gregory is nothing more than a Bill Gates look-a-like with a germ phobia, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) not only dresses like Steve Jobs but also shares his characteristic of being an irascible businessman hiding behind a hipster persona, and Thomas Middleditch, who plays hoodied, introverted genius Richard, even looks like Mark Zuckerberg.
Armando Iannucci was right; we will watch people loving being rich, but we also have to care about who these characters are, or at least have an interest in how they develop. Right now, these characters are so lacking in depth that it’s hard to care about anything they do.
Hopefully, the roles will become better defined as the season progresses because Silicon Valley is otherwise a clever, funny examination of an underexplored-yet-vitally-important culture that is not just for the already initiated but also for the hopeless newbs as well.
Click here to watch a trailer for Silicon Valley