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"Silicon Valley" episode 1: Too silly to satirize?

Jason Snell | April 8, 2014
There's a lot to like about "Silicon Valley," the comedy series that premiered Sunday night on HBO. Series creator Mike Judge brings the same absurdist social commentary vibe that served him so well in the cult film "Office Space." And let's face it--tech-industry culture can be so particularly strange that satirizing it is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Turns out that Richard's website, Pied Piper, has a terrible elevator pitch but some great underlying programming. Thus begins the bidding war between two tech billionaires. Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), who runs Hooli and consults with a "spiritual adviser," wants to buy the whole company out from under him. Meanwhile, tech visionary Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) wants to buy five percent of the company and become Richard's mentor.

Belson is a scary, Larry Ellison-like figure who orders his flocks of flunkies around with ease. "I love what you did," he tells Richard, and then pivots to a subordinate: "Fill him in, Jerry." Gregory, on the other hand, is a loopy Silicon Valley visionary who gives a TED Talk about getting everyone to drop out of college.

In its bright, broad strokes and embrace of geeky characters, the show's tone actually reminds me of a parade of nerdy '80s movies, like "WarGames" and "Real Genius" and "Weird Science." "Real Genius" is one of my favorite movies, so that's a compliment.

However, sometimes I have to wonder if the show's satirizing the tech industry's failings or just falling into the same traps. Of the show's nine main characters, there's only one woman — Monica (Amanda Crew), Peter Gregory's assistant. She's a good character — in fact, Monica's really the first one to realize the value of Richard's Pied Piper algorithm — but she's also only one of two female characters who speak in the entire episode.

Early on in the episode, one of the characters jokes that silicon-valley parties divide along gender lines in such extreme fashion that they're more like "hasidic weddings." As that joke's falling flat, the characters walk past a single table full of attractive, twentysomething women in black dresses. They're scenery. Later, there's a funnier joke — about a programmer creating a breast-focused app because "that's what people want" — so the show clearly wants to comment on the adolescent attitudes of people in the industry. But the lack of female characters in the show, Monica excepted, is troubling.

At the end of the episode, Richard recruits his pals to join him in founding his new startup. It's a legendary, inspiring moment, but the only words he can come up with are other company's marketing slogans. "Let's not be like other companies — let's think different," he attempts. "Let's just do it. Let's make it happen."

Richard doesn't want to fall into the same traps as every other silicon valley start-up, but even his first instincts are unoriginal. You can see where the story is probably going to go from here over the seven remaining episodes.

Mike Judge has his work cut out for him. The target of "Silicon Valley's" satire is so over the top itself that it's almost impossible for the jokes to be too ridiculous. In fact, it's more likely that Judge's wildest dreams for tech excess will not be able to keep up with the actual excesses of the industry. In a world where Google is building self-driving robots and trying to cure death while Facebook spends billions of dollars on virtual-reality goggles, how broad is too broad?


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