Let no one say Mike Judge doesn't have it in for The Man. As in “Office Space,” the new HBO series “Silicon Valley” follows the trials of a group of under-appreciated ham-and-eggers hoping to break free of the bottom rung. Unlike “Office Space,” the plan here is to do it honestly.
Initially it looks like programmer Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) has big dreams but little to back them up. By day he works as a grunt for a thoroughly ridiculous (and Google-riffic) megacompany called Hooli. Some of the best jokes in the pilot come at Hooli's expense, and while a lot of the humor is tech company-specific, anyone who has worked for a massive corporate entity will feel a queasy sense of recognition.
When Richard takes the cushy, company-run bus into work (a real-life perk for Google employees), riders must suffer through an annoyingly slick video plug for the company from ego-bloated founder Gavin Belson. Richard, lost in conversation, barely notices. He's so inundated with corporate propaganda there's no point in making fun of it. When Richard and his friends do take stabs at the ridiculous claims squawked by Belson and his legion fans (“making the world a better place” with nanotechnology is the catch phrase du jour), it's in voices heavy with resignation.
Home life isn't any better. He lives in a “startup incubator” (actually just a house owned by loopy, fast-talking Erlich (T.J. Miller) where he builds Pied Piper, a proprietary site allowing songwriters to test music to see if it's impinging on existing copyrights. Even seemingly behind-the-times Erlich sees it as unsexy and probably unsellable.
Still, he believes in Pied Piper, and that conviction (which frequently seems to swing between wrongheaded and genius) makes him interesting to watch. After he and his friends Big Head (Josh Brener), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjani), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Erlich attend a lavish party hosted by the creators of “a mediocre piece of software” that has just sold for big money to Google (liquid shrimp and Kid Rock are just two of the lampooned luxuries on hand), Richard hatches a plan to corner eccentric investor Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch) following a Ted talk and pitch Pied Piper.
Though Richard makes the collar, it takes less than a minute for Gregory's head of operations Monica (Amanda Crew) to lance the concept. Oh, and don't blink — Monica is the only female with substantive dialogue in the entire show. Silicon Valley may have women in the start-up realm, but don't look for this show to bother with many of them, at least not for a while. In this episode Belson jokes that programmers cluster in packs of five at Hooli, always featuring “a tall skinny white guy, short skinny Asian guy, fat guy with a ponytail, some guy with crazy facial hair then an East Indian guy.” Never, it seems, with a woman in the mix.
Anyway, it looks like “Silicon Valley” is about to go the way of “Sanford and Son” or “The Honeymooners,” a show that follows sad sacks with get big ideas that never translate into big money. Richard's dismissal by Amanda comes on the heels of another emotional beatdown from the “brogrammers” at the office, who act more like dumb frat guys than techies.
Of course, Amanda and the brogrammers quickly find out Richard has buried the lead — in Pied Piper is a nifty algorithm that allows a search on a compressed data space. Within minutes, Belson is offering $10 million to buy Pied Piper, while Gregory is on the phone offering a fraction of that — but for just five percent of the company plus the support needed to grow it. Richard can either take the money and run, or potentially become the next one-name-only Silicon Valley superstar — 2014's Zuckerberg.
Richard, already a twitchy kind of guy, celebrates his abundance of riches by throwing up and suffering a panic attack intense enough to send him to the doctor. The doctor remembers a case just like Richard's — but he can't remember if the patient took the money or tried to build a company. In any case, he shot himself in the head and did it exactly the wrong way. To help Richard out, he instructs him not to shoot himself in the temple, as that doesn't kill but simply blinds. Not surprisingly, Richard doesn't find this all that helpful.
Amanda pops up to explain to him that, while everyone else is tossing around the “making the world a better place” trope, his logarithm may be able to do exactly that if applied to medical services and other fields with urgent needs. Whether Amanda is sincere, of course, we'll have to see.
Richard is sorely tempted to take the big money, but watching a guy sort out how to best spend a massive windfall wouldn't be much of a series. Instead, Richard signs with Gregory — and then worries about how to tell Erlich, who is already running around bragging about his ten percent windfall (after all, Pied Piper was developed in his incubator). It's a tiny miracle of a scene when Richard gives Erlich the news — and discovers the seeming oaf has always wondered what he gave up when he took the money from the sale of his creator, Aviato (a name you won't soon forget, as Erlich has it plastered all over his car and T-shirt collection). Erlich, to Richard's surprise, supports his decision completely.
It's an honest moment that saves the show from drowning in easy target parody. Richard is more than his twitches, and even Erlich, with his bad facial hair and all, is more than he seems. While “Silicon Valley” may be a sitcom, what it has to say about big business, tech and otherwise, is more barbed than you might expect from a half-hour.
Did you watch “Silicon Valley”? Would you take the $10 million or chose to build a company?