Making Fun of the Silicon Valley Makes for Great TV
Photo: Jaimie Trueblood HBO
First things first: If you are not watching HBO's new comedy Silicon Valley, get on it. Now three episodes in, the show is proving to be one of the funniest HBO has released in some time. The show follows Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) a developer working for a very Google-esque company, Hooli, based out of the computer capitol of the world, Silicon Valley. Richard develops a compression somethingorother that is meant to be a music finding website, but it turns out he's created some sort of piece of compression brilliance. Once this fact is discovered, Richard is faced with a very serious decision: Sell the algorithm to Hooli for $10 million dollars or work with eccentric venture capitalist, Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch) and retain all rights and potential profits. Richard takes the hard road.
The plot in and of itself is fine enough; it's an underdog story with a very discomfited, nerdy underdog. But it's the world surrounding Silicon Valley that makes the show such an interesting one.
There have been many television programs where the surrounding city is as much a character as the actors on the show. Breaking Bad's dusty New Mexico landscape was as important to the plot as any Tuco or Gus were. House of Cards' corrupt Washington DC is the cold, silent character that doesn't speak words, but speaks volumes. And Sex and the City's New York should have received top billing. But the way that San Francisco manifests itself into Silicon Valley is unique. We're not so much seeing the city itself, as we are clobbered over the head with the idiocy of its inhabitants, and they are certainly not making a good case for anyone to look into real estate. If this is the Bay Area, then it is filled with incredibly annoying people!
Last month, New York Magazine profiled San Francisco calling it, among other things, the "new New York." The Bay Area, which includes Silicon Valley, Palo Alto and Atherton, is home to 56 billionaires. New York City has 66. The article goes on to ponder why despite the Bay Area's immense wealth, they are still a bunch of huge dorks. Los Angeles cool hasn't permeated these new titans of industry; rather it is a town full of Toms shoes and hoodies, the Mark Zuckerberg line at fashion show week.
The Bay Area has always had a certain draw. When the Beats lazily ambled their way to fill its cobblestone streets, it was literature and drugs and all very hip. When the country's counter-culture took over Haight Ashbury, it was progressive and full of love, and drugs too. But since the techs decried the area their stomping ground, it has taken on a new spirit.
During the first tech wave of the '90s, wannabe content creators came to the Silicon Valley in droves. It was a modern-day gold rush. But this second wave feels different. There's more money and it has sticking power. These wannabes aren't just looking for wealth, they are looking for millions, and they want to wear sandals with socks to the office as they munch on free-trade trail mix and drink purified water from their BPA-free Nalgene bottles and discuss their latest philanthropic, adventure vacations.
"San Francisco is too earnest, too eager to be liked, to truly wallow in its wealth like Bloomberg's New York. (If Martin Scorsese had made The Wolf of Silicon Valley, it would have been two hours of Leonardo DiCaprio apologizing for spilling the Dom Pérignon.)," Kevin Roose beautifully describes it.
Silicon Valley, the show, touches on this stereotype (it's funny because it's true!) with love and lots of snark. Richard is the epitome of that awkward-too-nice-for-his-own-good-geek; and he shops at the Zuckerberg clothing store. His cohorts are nerds among nerds. They live in an "incubator," the brainchild of Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), the most offensive of the genus geek - completely self-unaware. Then there is Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), the token Indian and Bertram (the always brilliant Martin Starr) that rare geek who's a Satanist.
But it is more the ancillary characters that turn what should be a super-hip town into the cultural equivilance of the most inane of TED Talks. Hooli's founder Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) meditates for hours and seeks business advice from his shaman. And Peter Gregory's personal mission is to get the country's future to drop out of college immediately - an interesting message for our recent grads and incredibly fitting to boot. Why waste your energy in college, when you can find all the world's riches in $.99 cent apps?
Of course the inhabitants of the Bay Area mostly disagree with the way their culture is being portrayed. According to USA Today, those really involved in the tech industry find it amusing, but also a gross exaggeration.
For Ray Wang, founder of Constellation Research, the show is causing him to explain to friends around the country that his world isn't all about poorly attended parties with Kid Rock as an unimpressed musical guest, per the show's premiere.
And BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti says that while the show is funny, it's off base. Many New Yorkers felt the same way about Sex and the City or Friends; whose lives are these exactly? But sometimes when there is that modicum of truth that is when we get the most offended. That's what a stereotype is after all; they tend to come from somewhere.
In terms of timeliness, this show is right on the mark. America is a country that barely makes anything anymore; media is our biggest export and the virtual world is swiftly engulfing the real one. With its biker lanes and commuter trams, its ridiculously expensive parties where geeks hobnob with paid guests ("Anyone here that is a 7 and above, is paid to be here," says an actress in the third episode), and communal living that hopes to breed ideas, Silicon Valley, the region, is a new character that we haven't seen before on television. But is it the good guy or the bad guy? I'm not sure yet.
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