We live in a culture of app madness, where the dream of making millions has given way to billions, where high-tech business models change as fast as fashions in whole grains, where algorithms and voice commands are the new catechism and TED talks are the new church.
And now, at last, we have a TV series that does comic justice to that culture, one that can make jabs at toe sneakers and quinoa while mocking everything from hopeful Northern California startups to the Big Brother we call Google. “Silicon Valley” is a very welcome new HBO show that feels essential right from the very first episode, which is Sunday at 10 before “Veep.” Created by Mike Judge, it does for techies, venture capitalists, and tech-biz campuses what Judge’s film “Office Space” did for cubicle dwellers, their bosses, and office parks back in 1999.
The central characters are a bunch of geeks who live and work in a ranch house owned by an arrogant, bullying dude named Erlich (T.J. Miller). Erlich once made a bit of money selling a startup, but now he sits waiting for one of the guys in his “incubator” to come up with the next big thing, so he can take 10 percent of it. Unwittingly, the meek and socially awkward Richard (Thomas Middleditch) is the first to come a cropper, albeit accidentally. He develops a search engine called Pied Piper that lets musicians find out if their new music has already been copyrighted. It is not the next killer app — but it happens to operate on a sophisticated algorithm that draws quick interest from major bidders.
Suddenly, Richard is being courted by two Steve Jobs types who take plenty of Judge’s not-so-gentle ribbing. The guys in the incubator are the butt of jokes, too. They’re like seventh-graders obsessed with code — not quite “The Big Bang Theory” guys, but close. The idea of a major payday only gives Richard shpikles (which leads him to a doctor who pitches a medical-care app during their appointment). The show opens with Richard and his housemates, including Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), at a high-tech private party featuring Kid Rock, where the uncomfortable women and men stand separately. “Every party in Silicon Valley winds up like a Hasidic wedding,” Dinesh says.
But the head of the Google-like Hooli named Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) and a venture capitalist named Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) are a lot more darkly humorous and creepy. They’ve surrounded themselves with yes men, who flatter their self-images as religious figures and support their deluded notions about making the world a better place. Once upon a time, they were probably geeks with big ideas and no business sense, too, but now they’re eager to exploit the innocent in order to stay atop the endless wave of tech buzz. Their egos are their guiding principles.
In one great little moment in the premiere, Belson gazes out of his office window at his employees on the lawn. “They always travel in groups of five, these programmers,” he observes with some irritation and disbelief. “There’s always a tall, skinny white guy; short, skinny Asian guy; fat guy with a ponytail; some guy with crazy facial hair; and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.”
“You clearly have a great understanding of humanity,” his spiritual guru responds.
As Richard, Middleditch is a perfect geek everyman. He has giant eyes that reveal all; he could play the same role in a silent version and still be effective. He’s the satirical show’s much-needed core of sympathy. Miller is also good, in a painful way, as the middle-managing predator who says to Richard, “I need you to be a complete [expletive]. . . . If you’re not an [expletive], this company dies.”
In the ads for the show, the guys of the incubator — including Jared (Zach Woods from “The Office”) — recall the guys from “Entourage,” but on the show they’re an altogether different species. They don’t really know how to party or how to be around the opposite sex. Thematically, the male-dominated cast makes sense — although I’m hoping Judge will find a way to develop some female characters across the eight-episode season.
And I do suspect the show will get a second season, if audiences pick up on it. In the world of ones and zeroes, “Silicon Valley” is close to a 10.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.