An early moment in Silicon Valley indicates the show’s promising and intermittent wit. Richard (Thomas Middleditch), a passive and emotionally stymied coder for a Google-y company called Hooli, has recently discovered that he’s invented a data compressor with revolutionary potential. Hooli’s CEO, a Steve Jobs clone named Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), wants it badly; so does Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), another techie billionaire hotshot who’s willing to finance Richard’s own company rather than merely subsuming his innovations. After much debate, Richard opts for the start-up route, and he toasts his company’s birth with his roommates, who all live in a Palo Alto “incubator” under the theoretical tutelage of Erlich (T.J. Miller), a stoner blowhard coasting on the sale of an app he developed once a upon a time. But during the toast, which is meant to announce the new company’s aim to forge an iconoclastic people-first path that will exist in marked contrast to the Googles of the world, Richard finds himself appropriating one corporate catchphrase after another. “Think different,” Richard says, until someone reminds him that that’s Apple’s slogan. “Just do it,” he counters.
That exchange, and there are several others that are equally resonant, allows us to see just how deeply corporate culture has permeated our most basic discourse. Creators Mike Judge, Dave Krinsky, and John Altschuler parody the hive-mindedness that exists in almost every person who’s participating in the social contract of a major first-world society. As sell-outs like to say, they aren’t selling out, but buying in, and we can see that Richard and his friends are desperate to buy into the cult of Hooli, but since they’re outcasts, either stuck in the company’s lowest prestige jobs or outside of it at its social periphery, they must start their own cult and hope that others will be persuaded to want to join. At its best, Silicon Valley is driven by an outrage that acknowledges that our culture is being reshaped, with terrifying rapidity, by opportunistic horndogs who preach of revolution, but who really want the girls and bling they feel other CEOs have unfairly denied them. Evolving technology never realizes its democratic potential because every would-be reformer is immediately evolved into a demagogue.
As he displayed in Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill, as well as in the best portions of Office Space and Idiocracy, Judge has a chameleonic ear for the specificities of varying work cultures. He immediately seizes on the infuriatingly hypocritical messiah poses of companies like Google, with their “voluntary” outdoor meetings and insidiously manipulative platitudes that foster free thinking, as long as it’s in sync with the right free thinking. Beneath its posturing, Hooli is shown to be built on a caste system that’s no more nuanced than that of a college sorority: Ass-kissers who toe the line ascend the company ladder, while the more gifted, though socially inept, visionaries find themselves wasting away at the bottom dreaming of sex and revenge. By the time the visionaries have power, they’re too embittered to know how to use it.
Silicon Valley is swiftly and densely plotted, and it’s surprisingly committed to the details of the challenges of starting a business. Once again in the tradition of Google, Richard finds that his company name, Pied Piper, is already trademarked by someone else, and so he has to scramble to clear the rights before he can cash his start-up check. Another episode focuses almost exclusively on the potential pitfalls of naming another active company employee a board member. The series rarely succumbs to cutesiness; like the world of its namesake, Silicon Valley is unsentimental and matter-of-factly ruthless.
Unfortunately, the series shares something else with prior Judge productions, particularly Office Space: a tendency to sideline its best ideas for amusing but unremarkable buddy comedy. Judge clearly likes his characters, and his charismatic actors often justify that affection, but it’s disappointing to see so much of an episode’s running time spent, for example, on the homophobic implications of a piece of street graffiti, when we could be in the inner chambers of Hooli, or even in the incubator watching as the nerds bicker their way through code to realize the compressor’s greatest potential. Judge favors micro culture over macro, and King of the Hill remains his masterpiece because its themes and resonances were firmly rooted in the former. But Silicon Valley demands that more attention be paid to the presiding overlords of the macro who casually write the micro subtleties of our everyday lives.