“Silicon Valley” is sharp fun for both the computer lingo-savvy and for the non-Tweet, non-Facebook crowd such as out-of-it me.
By Gerald Peary
My introduction to nerd culture. Thirty years ago in Cambridge, I was invited upstairs to a party held by two MIT student roommates. The apartment was bare, the conversation was awkward, there was no music, and the guests were offered… cookies and milk! A few years later, those two gawky MIT guys broke the bank at Las Vegas, as part of the blackjack gang of Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House.
I instantly recalled my socially disinclined neighbors when watching Silicon Valley, a funny HBO lampooning of high-tech culture from Beavis & Butthead’s Mike Judge. There they are again, in Episode One of this eight-part series, reborn as the bumbling, twentyish, computer geeks new to today’s San Francisco Bay. They walk around in awe at a swanky employee party at Hooli, the mega software company that has condescended to hire them. Kid Rock is the house band for the night, and there are girls and glamour. “This is what happens when Google acquires your company for $200 million,” they are told. But these aren’t guys for sexual hookups. Soon they are home, in shared bedrooms with bunk beds, in a suburban house owned by the crass, overweight, shaggy-bearded Ehrlich. Here is Ehrlich’s greedy deal. The boys stay rent-free, but he collects 10% of whatever profits come from APPS developed by his boarders.
When I connected my pallid, passive MIT neighbors and the millions they made in Las Vegas, I was jolted. Cynical Ehrlich (T.J. Miller) is a far shrewder judge of character than I was. He gambles that, among these dolts packed in his house, at least one might invent something that could bring him, at 10%, a fortune. Who will it be? Dinesh (Kumail Nanjani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), the Pakistani and Canadian émigrés who are always stupidly bickering with each other? Or Big Head (Josh Brener), the little guy who, when you actually ask him something, seems to be lacking a functional brain? Or Richard (Thomas Middleditch), twitchy and nervous and career-hampering insecure, prone to vomit when challenged, or to curl up on the floor.
It’s timid Richard who has the breakthrough. He develops Pied Piper, a modest, user-friendly music APP that can inform people if a song they are seeking is copyrighted. Nobody with money is slightly interested. But a compression algorithm for this APP has enormous possibilities for speeding things us when applied elsewhere in cyberspace. Richard suddenly is caught in a monumental bidding war between Hooli’s Big Brother-like CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) and an equally vainglorious venture capitalist, Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch). Belson offers Richard $10 million dollars for a buyout. However, the idealistic Richard accepts instead Gregory’s wee offer of $200,000. That would allow him to remain as Pied Piper’s CEO. And he can be a truly loyal friend, hiring on his three roommates as his workforce.
That’s the black humor setup. Over subsequent episodes, Richard’s great plan totally backfires. His roomies aren’t grateful in the least that he has sacrificed over $9 million dollars to employ them. Dinesh and Gilfoyle are sour and distracted pushed together on the job: the Pied Piper Company works from the close quarters of home. They also want Richard to kick out Big Head, who is totally useless. Richard nobly keeps a position open for his non-achieving best pal. Big Head rewards Richard’s kindness by taking a higher-paid job back at Hooli.
And Richard as CEO? A great achievement, until he is asked to develop and deliver a business plan. He has no clue. He looks up “Business Plan” on Wikepedia. Where I left off, after Episode Five, things look muddy for the future. Richard has two weeks to put together a speech in which he will introduce Pied Piper to the world. He has no idea what his company is, or what it does. And he’s come to realize that he’s been tossed like toast between mighty capitalists. Here’s the series’s most frontal attack on the 1%: “These are billionaires. Humiliating each other, they use more money than we’ll see in a lifetime.”
Silicon Valley starts out mildly amusing but get funnier and funnier through the weeks. There’s an amiable ensemble of not-famous actors, and the writing, by Judge and various partners, is both computer lingo-savvy and also sharp fun for the non-Tweet, non-Facebook crowd such as out-of-it me. If it’s romance one desires, alas, seek elsewhere. It takes five episodes before our three nerd musketeers finally get approached at a corporate party by some steamy, friendly babes. Alas, alack: the women explain they are actresses paid to approach guys and be friendly. One woman cheerily adds: “A 7 or over, it’s us. A 3, it’s a party guest.”
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.