Depends on the Nerds: HBO's "Silicon Valley"

Mike Judge's start-up comedy could use a bit more investment in character development.

Published April 2, 2014 8:22PM (EDT)

Thomas Middleditch and Josh Brener in "Silicon Valley"       (HBO/Jaimie Trueblood)
Thomas Middleditch and Josh Brener in "Silicon Valley" (HBO/Jaimie Trueblood)

As the hubbub over #cancelcolbert wore on, I definitely began to hear the grumblings of disillusionment from those who had once placed hope in the power of the almighty hashtag. Twitter isn’t going away any time soon, but the promise of social media activism certainly took a beating this week. It’s worth noting, then, that when Twitter founder Biz Stone appeared on "The Colbert Report" on Monday, he was hustling not only his book but also a shiny new app. Jelly doesn’t do what Twitter does. (To be honest, I’m not sure what it does.) But in his enthusiasm for said product, Stone sounded suspiciously like one of the bit players in HBO’s new series, “Silicon Valley,” who declared that his start-up’s latest application would help “make the world a better place.”

“Silicon Valley,” the brainchild of “Beavis and Butthead” creator Mike Judge, lampoons the culture of digital innovation with great fervor. Low-level programmers are portrayed as sexless wannabes or overpaid cogs wasting away grinding out widgets on sprawling campuses. CEO’s are painted as insecure, wildly idiosyncratic stiffs awkwardly balancing both god and persecution complexes. And there seems to be some question as to whether everybody – or anybody – has a touch of the Asperger’s.

But for all the fun it pokes at caged codemonkeys, “Silicon Valley” boasts as much DNA from “Entourage” as it does from “The Big Bang Theory.”  In other words, this appears to be a show about losers – mostly male losers, natch – but these are losers on the come-up in the age of geek ascendancy. “For thousands of years, guys like us have gotten the shit kicked out of us,” says Richard (Thomas Middleditch), the show’s jittery protagonist in the midst of an ego-bolstering bidding war over his revolutionary compression algorithm. “But, now, for the first time, we are living in an era where we can be in charge and build empires. We could be the Vikings of our day.”

In other words, expect to see some nerd fantasy fulfillment version of E getting his first Maserati or Turtle banging a specimen fresh off the groupie truck nearly as hot as Vince’s. Also, expect to see those dreams repeatedly shot down – as such is the nature of episodic television. Hopefully, the redundancy of the tech industry rollercoaster will not become as tedious as “Entourage’s” Hollywood travails quickly became. On an early episode of “Silicon Valley,” Richard is stifled by his inability to deposit a much-needed investor’s check due to simple banking protocols. Leave it to Judge, the man behind “Office Space,” to make monsters of everyday minutia.

Mildly amusing as the moment may be, the fact that Richard – skinny, disheveled, and perpetually hoodied – doesn’t know how checks work hints at “Silicon Valley’s” most immediately apparent flaw: Its nanochip-thin characters. In this post-Spiderman age, when any skinny guy can buy a pair of skinny jeans and properly dishevel his hair, who accepts the premise that the smartest guys in the room are necessarily the most awkward, hapless, desperate, or lonely? Even the dudes on “The Big Bang Theory” have girlfriends at this point. Yet, the incubator inhabitants of “Silicon” are burdened with so many worn-out nerd signifiers, there seems to be little room for actual personalities.

That’s not to say they aren’t funny. The core four that make up Richard’s entourage generate acerbic quips quicker than they do code. Fans of Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, and T.J. Miller will be thrilled to find all three playing themselves – or, at least, versions of the personas for which they are most known in hip comedy circles. Collectively, they are the physical manifestation of groupthink, functioning as a sort of peanut gallery giving bitter voice to those of the downtrodden start-up. As to who they are as individuals, we have yet to find out. We do, however, soon learn that Starr's character Gilfoyle (one name only) is both Canadian and a Satanist -- a cute Venn diagram to be sure, but not a person.

Easily, the most innovative bit of casting is that of Christopher Evan Welch as the gang’s de facto financial angel, Peter Gregory. As an iconoclast, a brilliant mind, and a billionaire, Gregory embodies all the aforementioned standard characteristics of the successful nerd. Welch, though, pushes his character’s awkwardness to the maximum, imbuing Gregory with a stilted, nerve-wracking rhythm that is surprisingly watchable – and somehow, oddly, cool. The fact that Welch can make the most of such an archetype gives us some hope, if not for the future then for the next dozen Sunday nights in the "Valley."

("Silicon Valley" premieres this Sunday on HBO.)

By Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

MORE FROM Neil Drumming

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Hbo Mike Judge Silicon Valley Sitcoms Technology Tv