“Jobs was a poser. He didn’t even write code.”
With this offhand dismissal of Steve Jobs, Apple’s iconic cofounder, Richard Hendricks announced himself in the pilot of “Silicon Valley.” The protagonist of Mike Judge’s new comedy — that aired on HBO and ended its first season this Sunday — is a cerebrally gifted yet socially awkward programmer, a nebbish among nerds. Hendricks has an idea for an app called “Pied Piper” that could help musicians find out if they are infringing on any copyrights, but what sets the Valley abuzz is the revolutionary compression algorithm driving his app’s search engine. Soon, Hendricks is in over his head as two egomaniacal investors fight over him and his creation. He has a choice: a $10 million buyout and a comfortable life thereafter, or an investment of $200,000 to continue building Pied Piper. He refuses to let go of his baby, but soon realizes that turning his idea into a market-ready product has headaches of its own.
52-year old Judge has often mined his life to find inspiration for art. The time he spent slogging in a cubicle in Bay Area in the ‘80s gave him enough material for 1999’s “Office Space,” a comedy that spoke to the ennui of white-collar employees and, 15 years later, is recognized as a cult classic. Several characters for “King of the Hill” came from Judge’s recollections of people who lived around him in Texas. Even the name “Butt-Head,” from his memorable animated series for MTV, is a portmanteau of the nicknames of two childhood friends. Thus, it’s no wonder he wanted to make a show about Silicon Valley. He did, after all, pack all his possessions into a Toyota pickup and move to Sunnyvale in 1987.
Just like “Office Space,” Judge’s new endeavor — that regular collaborators John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky helped create — is steeped in its universe, the jargon and characters seemingly plucked from memory or life. He even claims, “You can’t call it satire when you are showing it like it is.” Several plot points evoke headlines of today, or potential news stories for tomorrow. For example, a key track in the sixth episode involves the team’s business manager getting stuck inside an automated car, thereby ensuring no viewer can feel happy about the upcoming Google driverless car.
I’ve often felt Judge’s comic sensibilities aren’t suited for film. Even at its strongest, “Office Space” doesn’t resemble a cohesive narrative as much as a collection of individually hilarious skits. The same can be said for “Idiocracy”, while the less said about “Extract” the be–.
On TV, however, Judge’s voice sings. “Silicon Valley” works wonderfully as a longform story told over four hours, but it also allows Judge to create eight tight, small and propulsive narratives around the objects of his attention, while leaving enough time for zingers. It is one of the funniest shows in recent times, with the humor ranging from acerbic attacks at conceited millionaires to sublime visual gags in the opening credits sequence (watch Napster’s balloon pop, literally) to the most complicated dick joke I have ever seen.
The laughs are made possible by an ensemble populated with gifted comic performers. Thomas Middleditch headlines the cast as Hendricks, and is extremely easy to root for. The self-effacing geek is a trope that’s gone beyond cliché, but Middleditch makes Hendricks just believable enough. Working in his team are Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani and Zach Woods, each of whom gets numerous moments in the spotlight.
Starr and Nanjiani’s banter is the highlight of many scenes set inside the “tech incubator” Pied Piper functions from, while the final hour of the season sees Woods undergo a physical transformation as creepy as it’s uproarious. He doesn’t age like a human being as much as he decays like an unstable atom. TJ Miller, as the landlord (and 10 percent stakeholder in Pied Piper, as he reminds everyone), is a riot. He often gets the best one-liners, and the pampering extends to his costuming, too. Watch out for the t-shirt he sports in the pilot; that he considers it “cool” tells us all we need to know about him.
These actors all pale in comparison to Christopher Evan Welch, who played Peter Gregory, an angel investor in Pied Piper. Welch’s performance is a masterclass in comedy; he effortlessly conveys the effort it takes for his character to be humane. Just the physical discomfort he evinces while speaking is a never-ending laugh. Unfortunately, Welch passed away while the first season was still in production. His loss is tragic, especially because this role would have introduced many people to his skills. His absence looms like a weird cloud over the show’s latter half. Going by the events of the season finale, Peter Gregory will still be relevant to proceedings. Judge has almost ruled out recasting the role, so it remains to be seen how this issue will be tackled.
Another issue that “Silicon Valley” must tackle is its female representation. It’s true that the tech world isn’t the beacon of gender representation; since Judge is lampooning startups like these (scroll down to see their team), it’s fair that he doesn’t airdrop females for mere political correctness. To his credit, the series’ one major female presence, Monica, Peter Gregory’s assistant, goes beyond a token insertion. There’s no hullabaloo over her existence; she’s just there because she’s good at her job, which is how it should be.
Nevertheless, a few peripheral female characters pop up over the season and they’re all uniformly disappointing. Not only do they have no identity of their own — someone’s girlfriend, someone’s ex-girlfriend — but even the subplots featuring them are rife with sitcom clichés. A misunderstanding about a sexually adventurous girlfriend. A pretty, young coder who’s pathetic at coding and needs the guys’ help. And more. When Judge so studiously avoids mediocrity in the rest of “the show,” his seeming willingness here to settle for the average stings.
HBO renewed “Silicon Valley” for a second season in April, giving everyone plenty of time and reason to catch up. After the failure of the “Beavis & Butthead” revival, “The Goode Family” and “Extract,” it’s great to see Mike Judge out of the wilderness and back where he works best.
“Silicon Valley” is a show of the times and with the times, about today’s millionaires and how they operate. It’s weirdly fitting that the season ended a day before Apple’s WWDC, an event dominating the news cycle everywhere. Richard Hendricks wouldn’t approve of the speaker, Tim Cook, Apple’s new CEO. After all, he doesn’t write code either.