Review: HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’ Is Not the Vicious Skewering You’re Expecting

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist


We might be entering the golden age of mocking Silicon Valley.

Consider the evidence. San Franciscans have made private buses full of techie commuters a divisive class issue. The New Republic reports that the Valley’s mindless cult of youth is leading middle-aged men to seek Botox treatments. Big-brain billionaires openly muse about building floating cities in which to pursue their utopian dreams, as college and high school dropouts become insanely wealthy from apps that don’t actually make any money

Basically, Silicon Valley is already a satire of Silicon Valley.

In light of all this, there’s something surprising about Silicon Valley, the new show co-created by Mike Judge debuting this Sunday night on HBO. (I got an early look at the first five episodes.) Contrary to what you may think, or may have read, the show is not just a merciless skewering of socially inept code monkeys, pompous tech honchos, venture capitalists, and the bro-centric startup scene.

Sure, all those notions get played for laughs in various ways. But at its core, Silicon Valley invites you to empathize with the techno-devils.

So: Are we ready to root for these multibillionaire tech-freak overlords?

I’m surprised to find myself saying that I think the answer is yes.

The show’s protagonist, a dorkily handsome faux-bro named Richard, is a young employee of a Google-esque company called Hooli. Richard comes up with a new file-compression technology that he figures could be a business.

Richard is awkward — but not in the freakish, borderline-sociopath way that Mark Zuckerberg was portrayed in The Social Network. And he’s smart — but not in the superhuman, vaguely demigod way Steve Jobs is portrayed, um, everywhere.

And let’s face it, those are the usual, blatantly contradictory, identities offered when pop culture bothers to address techie entrepreneurs: They’re either evil weirdos we should fear and distrust — or otherworldly geniuses we should all strive to emulate.

In contrast, there’s something relatable about Richard and his posse. True, he’s dealing with choices most of us never will (sell his idea outright for $10 million, or accept a $200,000 investment and control his own startup?). But he copes with them in a way that’s easy to understand (example: puking into a trash can).

Richard’s roommate co-workers — he essentially lives in a startup “incubator” — seem stereotypical at first: arrogant coders, a long-haired blowhard “mentor,” and so on. But all gradually reveal some humanity.

Judge’s past creations include Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill and the cult-favorite movies Office Space and Idiocracy. Given that track record, it’s no surprise that we’re all expecting Silicon Valley to poke fun and deliver laughs.

But Judge aficionados know there’s always more to his shows and movies than cheap snark: King of the Hill was profoundly sympathetic to its simple Texan characters — and we laughed with Beavis and Butt-head at least as much as we laughed at them.

Still, it’s one thing to empathize with bedrock-American Hank and Peggy. But think about the degree to which Silicon Valley and its denizens have come to feel like a distant planet inhabited by a bizarre, powerful, and frankly obnoxious species. That recent TNRarticle — about ageism in the Valley — paints a deeply unappealing portrait of the place: a borderline Logan’s Run scenario where bratty, loudmouth boys attract millions by dreaming up yet another Saturday-night hookup app, and everybody else is an irrelevant loser. Is it really plausible that an audience can root for anybody in this world?

Well, I sure did. And I think it’s because Judge — who actually worked as an engineer in the Valley back in the late 1980s — has a unique talent for capturing ambivalence. I mean that in the true sense of the word: not yawning indifference (the common misusage) but extremely polarized reaction, whipsawing between affection and contempt.

Because as likeable as Silicon Valley’s characters may be, the show certainly doesn’t pull punches.

It’s wickedly on-point in sending up techie blather about “making the world a better place” as a boilerplate rationale for sickening riches. Or the brain-outsourcer who can’t get through an argument without consulting his smartphone. Or the absurd lectures about why it’s vital to be an “asshole,” not a “tool.” Or supposed insights along these lines: A startup name should be “something you could scream out during intercourse.” Or the laughable rhetoric: “We could be the Vikings of our day.”

Judge and his collaborators display a great ear for this stuff and how inherently silly it is. As Judge has said: “Silicon Valley, more even now than when I was there, they’re always talking about how they’re making the world a better place. And maybe in some ways they are, but it’s just funny. Like the richest, most successful people in [Hollywood] … they’re like, you know, ‘I want to make really cool stuff. I love what I do.’ They’re not saying, ‘I’m saving the world through my movies.’ ”

It would be easy to convert that sort of observation into a more knee-jerk vicious take on Silicon Valley. And it’s possible that, right now, a more vicious approach would resonate with more viewers, anxious to make some kind of sense of the mega-rich tech-savant class.

But I think Silicon Valley’s approach may be smarter. Maybe the most daring thing to say about the people who inhabit that rarefied place is that, really … they’re not so different from the rest of us.

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