TV’s been attempting to mine the tech boom for material, with several series about the industry’s past and present having cropped up in development recently. E! considered for one of its first scripted venture the Kevin Spacey-produced “Upstarts,” which would take a look at the “digital gold rush” of the late ’90s, while Bravo went the reality route with the since-canceled “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley.” HBO has ordered a Silicon Valley-set comedy from Mike Judge comedy to series, and AMC’s upcoming “Halt & Catch Fire” is set in the ’80s in Texas’ Silicon Prairie. But “Betas,” the second original series from Amazon slated to go live with its first three episodes this Friday, is the first of this bunch out of the gate, a Bay Area-set comedy from newcomers Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard about a group of guys and their lone female Smurfette who are trying to raise funding for their social media app, BRB.
Amazon’s debuted its first original series, “Alpha House,” last week, a D.C. comedy created by Garry Trudeau and starring John Goodman and an overall solid offering, funny if not all that sharp-edged in its humor. That was the company’s grown-up offering, while “Betas” aims for the sophisticated kids, set in a slightly cartoonish version of the startup world that’s like a giant dorm united in the promise of major money.
It is, like “Alphas,” a solid show, one that actually shows more promise if also more of tendency to include thudding moments of “timeliness” — “I got a Bitcoin on Bollywood!” yells marketing specialist Mikki (Maya Erskine) when she comes across Nash (Karan Soni) engaged in a code-off with a rival from within their accelerator program. And she does this while holding up a physical coin, which makes it not just wince-inducingly forced but clunkily implausible.
The tech world is just as insular and particular as that of Washington politics, which makes both “Alpha House” and “Betas” sitcoms about cultural specificity and how small and catty their bubbles can be. But “Betas” has the challenge of keeping up with the ADD-addled microcosm of online life, references to which are doomed to be outdated before they’re even committed to video. The show works up a sweat with its nonstop nods to Glassholes and aspies and C++ boob jokes and Badtz-Maru tattoos, but underneath the tiring barrage is a convincing portrayal of a strange economy made up of twentysomethings auditioning for investors with sometimes ridiculously frivolous ideas somehow worth millions. BRB, which is kind of cross between an all-orientations Grindr and Netflix’s recommendation engine, is allegedly based on genuinely innovating algorithms, but it has to compete with custom web denim companies and a parking app called “Valet Me,” and even some of the people working on it seem less than convinced of the fundamental worthiness of their enterprise.
BRB’s team represents an array of tech types. There’s Trey (Joe Dinicol), the semi-arrogant and good-looking head of the company whose daring sometimes works in its favor, as when he gets the attention of the spacey but powerful investor George Murchison (Ed Begley Jr.), and sometimes doesn’t, as when he courts the notice of “Valleysmash” journalist Jordan Alexis (Madeline Zima).
There’s Hobbes (Jonathan C. Daly), who’s older and divorced but still a mess — “I’m 35 — it’s like 95 in Valley years! I can’t take another failed start-up,” he sighs. There’s Mitchell (Charlie Saxton), who still looks and acts 12, and who hopelessly pines for Mikki, the character the show seems the least sure what to do with, making her a kind of Artful Dodger of geekiness.
But it’s Nash (Karan Soni), the group’s genius coder and the best friend Trey convinced to drop out of Stanford so they could pursue their startup dreams, who quickly establishes himself as the show’s most compelling and unusual character, especially in the third and by far strongest episode. An antisocial type who cocoons himself in soft rock from Little River Band and Toto and who’s permanently clad in shorts (“I don’t own pants,” he flatly tells Trey when told to dress up for a meeting), Nash is too weird to fit any particular cliche. He’s querulous and uptight, humorlous and seemingly meek, and yet when we meet his conservative Indian parents it becomes clear how much he’s going against the plans for success they’ve set out for him.
An encounter that suggests Nash is also questioning his sexual identity, leading him to plaintively admit to Trey “I’m never going to be able to make them happy,” is uncommonly moving for a show that didn’t before then seem to have an aims for emotional depth. With Nash as the emotional corem and his relationship with Trey both fond and marked with a social power imbalance, “Betas” actually has the potential to be a lot more than just a catchword-of-the-day laden satirical look at the ridiculous of the new dot-com era.