"Silicon Valley": The danger of rooting for the geek

Mike Judge's HBO show is the real deal. But that means it can't just be funny. It's also got to get dark

By Andrew Leonard
Published April 7, 2014 2:48PM (EDT)

The first line spoken in "Silicon Valley" is delivered by Kid Rock. He is performing at a corporate party, to zero applause or attention. "Fuck these guys!" he exclaims in disgust.

It's the perfect opening line for a show that we expect to poke fun at the pretensions and overweening cultural prominence of Silicon Valley. But the line is fatally complicated by the fact that it's uttered by Kid Rock. By any meaningful cultural standard, Kid Rocks sucks. So just how valid is his criticism? I can guarantee you, if Beck had been playing at that corporate party, the assembled geeks would have been grooving.

So is it a slam on Silicon Valley that the first words spoken are a profane attack on the people who inhabit Silicon Valley, a sign of further vicious sitcom judgments to come? Or is it actually a testament to the Valley's good taste that the nerds aren't giving the time of day to a loser? The CEO who is hosting the party and claims Kid Rock is his personal friend is an obvious target for derision, but what about the masses -- the programmers and geeks who are building our new world? Are they all equally vile?

Silicon Valley should and will be mocked by "Silicon Valley," but in the very first episode there's also an appreciation that there might be something cool going on -- a fact that probably won't sit well with some of the San Francisco Bay Area folks currently raging against the Silicon Valley machine.

But more on that in a minute. The early reviews were correct. Silicon Valley, the HBO sitcom, captures Silicon Valley, "the place," in high resolution HD. The language, the archetypes, the watered-down suburban pastels, the parade of white boys (with a few South Asians and East Asians thrown in for verisimilitude)... and above all, the goofy arrogance: It's all there, well-written and funny. Tesla billionaire Elon Musk might not like the show, because, he says, it doesn't catch the wild "Burning Man" side of SV culture. But Elon Musk not liking a sitcom that pokes fun at the Elon Musks of the world? That's pretty much exactly what the script doctor ordered, no?

The more interesting question to ponder is where all this is headed. Episode 1 gives us a classic Silicon Valley morality tale. A young programmer, Richard (played by Thomas Middleditch), has a big choice to make. His side project -- a music comparison website that enables easy checking for potential copyright violations -- turns out to employ a compression algorithm (a way to stuff a lot of data in a small space) that experienced Silicon Valley money men quickly recognize may well have actual "game-changing potential." In other words, it's worth a lot of money. Richard's day-job boss offers $4 million for the entire operation. But Peter Gregory, a venture capitalist modeled very closely on the Peter Thiels and Tim Drapers of the real Valley, offers to buy just a small stake in the company, thus letting Richard control his destiny.

For Richard and the audience of SV, the conclusion is inevitable. Richard has to go with the option that lets him keep his company. That's the dream of the Valley, right? And his boss is obviously venal, while the VC and his female (!) assistant are portrayed more interestingly -- they come off as genuinely sympathetic to his desire to control his own fate and build something that could, er, "change the world."

We like Richard. His panic attacks are the opposite of arrogance. He thinks Steve Jobs is a poseur who got too much credit for Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak's true geek creativity. He seems like a nice guy with real talent. He is, in other words, the antithesis of the soulless "techie" currently being demonized in San Francisco as a gentrifying monster and parasite. So we're rooting for him, and we want him to turn down the big bucks in exchange for being master of his destiny.

But as anyone who knows Silicon Valley can tell you, those sympathetic angel investors are just as dangerous -- perhaps more so -- than any grasping CEO. By playing Richard like a violin, Gregory gets a piece of his company for a low, low price, but that just sets Richard up for a later fall. He's going to need more money to get off the ground, and Gregory will end up owning him lock, stock and barrel. The way this morality tale almost always ends up playing out is that the entrepreneur ends up losing his company, or having it perverted in some horrible direction -- or, worst of all, to survive in an ocean full of sharks he becomes one of them.

Silicon Valley, in other words, eats guys like Richard up for breakfast. And that's not a particularly funny story. For Richard to succeed, he needs to do things that "we," the audience, don't want to root for. He needs to become Mark Zuckerberg,  the SV equivalent of Tony Soprano or Walter White. He needs to betray the friends he's about to convince to join his start-up. His career arc needs to be dark.

Because if he succeeds without compromising himself, then "Silicon Valley," the show, turns out not to be about Silicon Valley, the place. And that would be too bad, because this show has real potential. It could be a game-changer.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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