SXSW: SILICON VALLEY 1.01’Pilot’ Review

Mike Judge, known for such hits as Extract, The Wind, The Honky Problem… and some things he’s actually known for, like “Beavis and Butthead,” “King of the Hill”, Idiocracy, and Office Space, is stepping back into the world of corporate comedy with “Silicon Valley,” a new HBO comedy series about a group of programmers trying to make it in the fast-paced, full-of-itself world of Silicon Valley.

Judge is no stranger to the world of programmers as both “Silicon Valley” and “Office Space,” in particular, were created with Judge drawing from his own time in that world during the eighties. But like everything Mike Judge does, “Silicon Valley” skews the reality of life in the SV by giving it a sardonic twist. Everything’s “brain trust” this, “focus group” that, “synergestic marketability” and “personal brands” or “thinkubators” and “visionaries”. Everyone on Silicon Valley wants to be the next Steve Jobs, but, as the show’s tagline says, those who find success are often the least qualified to handle it.

Any show, particularly a comedy, lives and dies by its cast, which is why it’s fortunate that Judge has done such a top-notch job rounding out the Silicon Valley players. Thomas Middleditch stars as leading man Thomas. Although here “leading man” doesn’t mean the kind of strong-jawed ass-kicker that it usually means. Thomas is a taciturn, twitchy, nervous wreck of a man, prone to throwing up in trash cans and mumbling to himself. He’s the kind of weirdo you like to root for, and Middleditch plays his idiosyncrasies with aplomb. In the first episode we find him quietly working on a website that everyone thinks is a piece of trash… until it’s discovered that he’s accidentally stumbled onto some wonderfully powerful, high-tech code and he gets offered the chance of a lifetime.

Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, Josh Brener, and T.J. Miller round out Middleditch’s group of programmers/company co-founders, and each comedian brings their strengths to bat with their characters. Dinesh (Nanjiani) is often the calm, sarcastic voice of reason. Martin Starr is his usual dry self, but with a Satan-worshipping twist. Miller’s the real break-out star of the group, playing Erlich, a semi-retired thirty-something who sold his pretentiously-named company (Aviato, pronounced Ah-Vee-Ah-Toe by him and him alone) as soon as it was worth anything and has floundered around, investing in project after project, looking for something new to believe in. Few characters are as pompous of asses as Erlich, who constantly spouts out idiotic platitudes and contradictory statements without even a hint of irony to it.

While this cast is a stellar bunch of really, really funny guys, they also kind of highlight a problem with the show-: its lack of diversity. At one point a character remarks on how weird it is that programmers travel in groups of three white guys, one Asian guy, and one Middle-Eastern guy, and yet the cast’s group of programmers is four white guys and one Middle-Eastern guy. Also, in a cast of eight or nine principle characters, there seems to only be one woman. “But there aren’t many women programmers!” some would argue. Sure, there may not be many, but there are some, and maybe if they are better represented in media, there would be more. How much are women going to want to be programmers if they keep seeing shows and movies that not-so-subtly tell them it’s not their world and they shouldn’t want to be a part of it?

Diversity issues aside, what Mike Judge seems to have here is a hell of a comedy, and, thanks to the freedom provided by being on HBO, he can go as big and as crazy with it as he wants. There are strippers, F-bombs, and in a later episode Erlich goes on a drug trip in the middle of the desert to try to find the name of their company; a gag that wouldn’t fly on network television.

The pilot episode centers on Thomas’ newfound success, and his decision to either cash out and sell his awesomely useful coding for ten million dollars, or to keep control of his company and join forces with the reclusive, college-hating, genius millionaire Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) for 200K. It should come as no surprise that he takes the 200K. There wouldn’t be much of a show if it was just about a rich guy pissing away his money all the time. But in episode two, working with Peter Gregory proves more challenging than expected when his curmudgeonly genius begins to show itself.

The characters are round, the setting is vibrant and the laughs are frequent with “Silicon Valley.” At the question and answer session at SXSW, Mike Judge joked about how long the show could continue; if the quality of these first two episodes are any indication, expect to be hearing about “Silicon Valley” for quite some time. Tune in to HBO April 6, 2014 for the series premiere.