Tech media watch: Silicon Valley, season one

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Credit: HBO

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

It’s a little strange to think that what has been called the economic engine of modern America hasn’t been the subject of much satire in popular culture. Geek culture in general, obviously, is a fairly routine target, but the industry that employs and enables large sectors of modern geekdom is not.

The result of Silicon Valley’s generally unskewered cultural history is that Silicon Valley, the HBO comedy created by Mike Judge, doesn’t have to mine very deeply for material. It’s a stinging parody of the industry that nevertheless retains a basic faith in the power of technology to do genuinely meaningful things.

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Silicon Valley is at its meanest – and probably its best – when it talks about big companies like “Hooli,” the definitely-not-Google company where several characters work, and big personalities like Hooli’s CEO, a standard-issue tyrant of a CEO with a paper-thin veneer of social responsibility and spirituality. The show is ruthless about the hypocrisy of the cutthroat tech industry’s self-aggrandizing “we’re making the world a better place” rhetoric, and unsparing in its critique of its buzzword-happy, sycophantic corporate culture.

Yet main character Richard is routinely presented as unironically admirable – an absent-minded, mumbling nerd who created something of genuine value, and the show works hard to differentiate him from the armies of “innovators” populating the industry. His cohorts, though egotistical and often unpleasant, are portrayed as genuine talents, working hard to create something meaningful. (With the partial exception of T.J. Miller’s fantastic Erlich Bachman, a Falstaffian egomaniac.) It’s the rest of the Valley that’s the problem, not our guys.

Sadly, they are all guys, of course – obviously, you could argue that this is part of the send-up, given the infamously male-dominated culture of the tech industry, but Silicon Valley doesn’t do terribly well on the rare occasions that female characters get more than a line or two. The most prominent woman on the show is a smart, with-it businesswoman, who nevertheless acts mostly as a go-between for Richard and his Peter Thiel-esque VC backer. The revelation in the final episode that she apparently has romantic feelings for hopelessly dweeby, awkward Richard doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. Still, it’s been just eight episodes, so there’s room for improvement.

The parody hits exactly the right level of weirdness, staying very close to the already-strange reality of the tech industry, and generally doesn’t lapse into all-out farce. The jokes themselves, on the other hand, are inventively profane and frequently sort of grotesque – and are all the funnier for it. The lead cast is great, although supporting actors occasionally run away with their scenes. (One of the best of them is Christopher Evan Welch as the aforementioned Peter Thiel-alike. Sadly, Welch died during production of season one.)

All in all, Silicon Valley is the parodic savaging that tech industry culture deserves, though it never feels unfair or mindlessly cynical. It’s sharply written, wonderfully acted and very, very funny. If you haven’t watched it, do.

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