For all of the cheering for the quality and creative ambition of HBO’s programming — rah-rahs that are all truly deserved — it’s too often glossed over that that the network hasn’t had a lot of comedy success recently.
Before you lose yourself in a Ari Gold-style meltdown over that statement, allow some clarification.
Yes, there has been an abundance of critical and awards success when it comes to HBO’s current slate of comedies, a testament to the network’s admiral commitment to quality and adventurous content above all other programming factors. But while Julia Louis-Dreyfus is dutifully and rightfully winning acting awards for motherfucking epic comedic work on “Veep” (cursing just feels right when talking about that show) and Lena Dunham’s “Girls” routinely lights the zeitgeist on fire as if the cast moonlight as cultural flamethrowers, the fact of the matter is that HBO hasn’t had a mass-appeal hit in years.
Brilliant and unique shows like “Enlightened” and “Flight of the Conchords” deserve to be on air — nay, need to be on air — in order to raise the game for everybody else, to push the limits of what the medium “comedy series” is capable of accomplishing and making us feel. Shows like “Looking” and “Getting On,” though maybe not as universally hailed, are necessary because they open conversations and get us talking about the real issues beneath the laughter (something that say, “Mike and Molly,” isn’t doing very often). But the fact of the matter is that all of these series, even the more high-profile “successes” of “Veep” and “Girls,” lack the mass-appeal that HBO’s comedies used to have, when shows like “Sex and the City,” “Entourage,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” weren’t just getting people talking, but watching, too.
Luckily for HBO, though, the network may soon be able to have its cake — cultural relevance — and eat it, too — viewers. That’s because Silicon Valley, its freshman comedy about a group of bumbling tech nerds, has the potential to be its most mass-appealing comedy in years.
Let’s do some math.
The season finale of “Girls,” for example, was watched by 1.1 million viewers on its last Sunday this previous season, of which only 626,000 were watching it live. Compare that to “Entourage,” which was getting more than 3.1 million viewers when it bowed out — nearly three times the total for “Girls” — and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” pulled in 2.4 million with its last episode. And, of course, none of that compares to the 10.6 million people who tuned in for the last “Sex and the City.”
The premiere for “Silicon Valley” earlier this month was seen by an incredibly strong two million viewers, the best comedy premiere for HBO since “Hung” in 2009. It’s not Carrie Bradshaw numbers, sure, but it’s certainly more than the network’s comedy contemporaries, and a promising ratings start for a series that’s receiving enough positive word of mouth and rave reviews from critics for that number to grow exponentially week-to-week. But beyond good reviews and solid ratings, there’s a better reason to get excited about “Silicon Valley” as HBO’s big mainstream investment: what it represents.
The series begins with a private concert performed by Kid Rock in the backyard of some Silicon Valley schlubby tech nerd who “built a mediocre piece of software that might be worth something someday. “Fuck these people,” Mr. Rock says. In just those few seconds, “Silicon Valley” establishes what sets it apart from “Entourage,” “Sex and the City,” “Curb,” and the hit HBO comedies of yesteryear. The protagonists aren’t the kind of people who hire ’90s nostalgia acts to serenade people at a BBQ, or who serve “liquid shrimp” at a party. They are the anti-that. They’re the Everyman. They’re people like you and me, who live within the same means that you and I do. They’re just maybe a little better at math.
“Sex and the City” and “Entourage” both explored universal themes — how we love, what we need from friendships, and the excruciating act of watching the scale tip as we try to balance professional and personal lives. But they also celebrated a culture of excess, one that was less aspirational than it was entitled. We all deserve true love and personal fulfillment, they telegraphed, but we also deserve a nice pair of Jimmy Choos along with it. Or a girlfriend with big boobs. The superficial elements of each of those shows was as essential as the intimate, emotional elements.
The main characters of “Silicon Valley,” though navigating the world of investors and money is an integral part of its physical universe, couldn’t be more removed from the land of excess glamorized by those marquee HBO shows. In a part of California where the flaunting of wealth is a ritual — I mean, that Kid Rock party — these guys are no more ritzy than the pot-smoking Peter Pans working in a nondescript office park on “Workaholics.”
You relate to them because they’re kind of like you, unlike the other shows where you relate to the characters because you relate to the fairy tales they represent. “I’m a Carrie” has never been proudly stated by a girl because she, like Ms. Bradshaw, is maddeningly flaky about what she desires in a relationship and is marginally commitment-phobic. These girls say that because they identify with the idea of Carrie, a fashionable career woman who lives every part of her life fiercely, even if that’s not realistic. It’s the same with groups of guys who identify with the Entourage bros. They don’t just idealize the characters’ camaraderie, but the lifestyle they bond while living. And “Curb”? We all commiserate with Larry David’s crankiness. And we all wish we could, like he does, get away with it.
The guys of “Silicon Valley,” though, are grounded humans. Much in the same vein as “Girls,” these characters are relatable because of their real-world listlessness. There’s the yearning for something more, something grand, that’s shared by Richard and Big Head and company on Silicon Valley and Hanna and Marnie and the crew on “Girls,” but there’s also an understanding of the work and energy it takes to achieve those things. The beauty of both shows is that they don’t pretend that the characters can achieve those successes and those lifestyles without doing the work. They’re about characters drumming up the motivation to do what it takes to get there. And, like so many of us, failing to do so.
It’s great that “Girls,” with that as just one of the many cultural touchstones it hits on, continues to be such a water cooler staple. But it’s even greater that “Silicon Valley” is bringing that philosophy to the mainstream with some ratings success. Listen, “Game of Thrones” proves that HBO isn’t exactly hurting for viewers and is doing just fine. But it’s refreshing that, thanks to “Silicon Valley,” is back in the mainstream comedy game, too.