In his 2006 cult favorite “Idiocracy,” Mike Judge presented a future in which the stupid had taken over and the collective IQ had declined to the point where the country watered its crops with a sports drink and a movie consisting of 90 minutes of farting swept the Academy Awards. “Silicon Valley,” Judge’s new comedy series premiering on April 6th on HBO, has a present day setting that manages to feel like its own dystopia of astronomical rents and conference bike meetings, only it’s not the idiots who are on top — it’s the programmers.
Beta males rule the earth, or at least the South Bay tech universe of “Silicon Valley,” which provides a glorious wealth of material for co-creator, writer, executive producer and director Judge, who established himself as one of the keenest observers of workplace absurdity with 1999’s “Office Space.” Gone is the grind of cubicle farms and meaningless paperwork — instead, in “Silicon Valley,” the system has been upended so that people utterly unprepared for leadership or establishing market dominance are dumped blinking into the light to be told their ideas could be worth millions or billions.
One of these twitchy types is our hero, Richard (Thomas Middleditch), who spends his days working with his best friend Big Head (Josh Brener) at Google stand-in Hooli, and his nights in an “incubator” that’s really just the home of a guy named Erlich (T. J. Miller) who trades board for shares of the startups his housemates are all working on on the side.
“Silicon Valley” is Judge’s first live-action series after his animated small-screen hits “Beavis and Butt-head” and “King of the Hill,” and that it’s so funny is both gratifying and a relief. Judge can be a ruthless satirist when it comes to systems and social structures, but he’s less hard on the individuals ensnared in them, and there’s a sense that he’s a little charmed by the ridiculousness of guys making stacks of cash off of and claiming to be changing the world with, say, “integrated multiplatform functionality.”
The series, which has an eight-episode first season, tweaks the all-the-world’s-a-dorm aspects of tech life, but not too hard — it doesn’t need to, which it understands better than “Betas,” Amazon Studio’s earlier attempt at skewering the industry. The pilot opens with excellent visual gag at a party that’s actually utterly plausible, and after a few lines of expository commenting on the scene, Richard and his roomies just exist in their own surreal variation of cog-in-a-machine daily life — until it turns out they may have a chance at starting a company of their own.
“Silicon Valley” feels entirely cast from the funny, geeky sidekick pool of actors — Middleditch’s milquetoast Richard seems shocked to find himself the main character. In addition to Brener and Miller (“Successful Alcoholics”), there’s “Freaks and Geeks” alum Martin Starr as the abrasive former hacker Gilfoyle, the great stand-up Kumail Nanjiani as Dinesh and Zach Woods (“In The Loop”) as Jared, my personal favorite, a worker whose competence is accompanied by constant, sincere apologies. (After accidentally startling someone, he expresses regret for having “somewhat ghostlike features.”)
Looming large over the group are two genius billionaires — Hooli owner Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) and the even more eccentric investor Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch). The only regular woman on the scene is the latter’s employee Monica (Amanda Crew), though the gender separation is an ongoing joke (it’s “like a Hasidic wedding,” one character notes of the divided clusters of men and women at an event), the all-male environment of the house presented as an outcome of guys who are terrified of and intimidated by mixed company.
“Silicon Valley” sets itself up for a lot of jokes that could come down to “look, nerds,” but that are more complex and less easy than that — who here isn’t a nerd? “Brogrammers!” Richard whispers to himself fretfully when two more macho coworkers come into the office kitchen in which he’s eating cereal — but of course under the workout gear they, and Gavin Belson, and the preening hosts of the party at which the series starts, are all computer guys at heart — in which the stereotypical social strata has been turned around.
The series, which has the potential to be HBO’s most mainstream comedy in several years, presents a bitterly funny bubble in which insane amounts of money and coding talent have converged and all of the usual middlemen, sales types and public faces that used to be involved in this process have been left out. There’s only Richard, trying valiantly not to die of a panic attack when negotiating for the future of his company and trying to hold onto his humanity — and it’s a process you’re going to want to watch.