The Genius of Silicon Valley

Despite his libertarianism, Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley tears apart tech elites with a ruthless precision we haven’t seen since Office Space

Though Silicon Valley has been sufficiently popular to get renewed for a second season, and it’s received a warm welcome from most critics, still it seems to me we don’t appreciate this latest Mike Judge creation half enough.

You don’t hear people shouting from the rooftops about Silicon Valley the way they do about Mad Men or True Detective. I’d argue a basic cultural prejudice against comedy is at the root of this: If we laugh too hard, we tend to assume there can’t be anything too astute going on.

Silicon Valley is so consistently funny that its rigorous structure is almost disguised: the first season comprises a relentless march through the process of creating a startup company, from the initial idea to gaining the interest of financiers to creating the business plan to receiving the first check to choosing the board members to meeting with lawyers to signing the articles of incorporation to designing the logo.

Sounds kind of dry, perhaps, but that’s only if you’re never been involved in the black comic process yourself. For those horribly scarred individuals who’ve survived an attempt to make a business out of creative ideas and a few goofy but talented friends/colleagues/advisors, you’re already groaning inwardly at the thought of what the sources of comedy must be.

How much blood will be spilled on the carpet fighting idiotically over the company name, logo, job titles, equity shares? Which close friend will be ruthlessly sacrificed because he or she “brings nothing to the table”? When will the manipulative corporate overlords and their representative consultants pressure the newbies into selling out every principle they ever had, every goal they thought they were pursuing, in desperately trying to conform and succeed? How much idealistic blather will be spewed while the worst betrayals are actually taking place? Who’ll be left standing, covered in gore but with a career intact, when the company succeeds (not likely) or fails (very likely)?

The show’s focus on the mad business functioning of the tech world is signaled in the pilot episode, when Erlich Bachman (fearlessly played by T. J. Miller) — a big redheaded blowhard who runs an “incubator” for tech invention out of his home, claiming 10% of any valuable idea conceived there — explains to pale, principled programmer Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) why he started the incubator:

ERLICH: I wanted to give back — to make a difference. You know, like Steve.

RICHARD: Which one? . . . Jobs or Wozniak?

Erlich indicates that, of course, he means Jobs.

RICHARD: Jobs was a poser, he didn’t even write code. . .

ERLICH: You just disappeared up your own asshole, you know that?

RICHARD (trailing off, as Erlich strides confidently away): . . .he packaged the ideas, but it was Wozniak. . .

The Jobs vs. Wozniak debate recurs often between these two lead characters, with the advantage in most episodes going to the Jobs side. Could it go any other way in a riotous satire of American culture?

Just look up the late-nineteenth century Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla wars and see who wins. See how inevitably the astounding genius Tesla winds up in poverty and obscurity with no friends but his beloved pigeons, while that patent-thieving money-gouging product-packaging bastard Thomas Edison gets rich and becomes the only inventor whose name most Americans know.

In Silicon Valley, Richard is the Tesla/Wozniak figure who “merely” comes up with a data-compression algorithm that would seem to be an inherently valuable innovation. But at almost every climactic point of an episode, shy, stuttering Richard becomes a liability as the workings of the business dictate the algorithm must be hyped as a “vision,” described in corny slogans, “sold” all over again in a catchy way that favors Erlich’s natural gift for ballyhoo. (This tendency gets suddenly and surprisingly reversed in the season finale, but I won’t spoil it for you.)

When Erlich thinks he’s about to ascend to a showy public position of power, he tends to don his Steve Jobs black turtleneck in preparation. At one point, when an Erlich power play is frustrated, he tries to rip off the turtleneck in a rage, and gets caught in its stretchy grip. After a struggle that exposes his flabby white stomach bulging over his jeans, he realizes he’s accidentally put the shirt back on.

The entrapping turtleneck!

We could get pretty metaphorical about the binding qualities of that black turtleneck and the stranglehold it has on tech culture, which increasingly translates into a stranglehold on global culture.  I’ll never forget the day Steve Jobs died, and black turtlenecks sprouted all over the Bay Area as acolytes actually dressed up as their idol. Before that day, when I walked into a neighborhood restaurant and saw, sitting at the counter, a row of black turtlenecked apostles, I hadn’t quite realized how powerful and ludicrous the cult of Steve Jobs had become.

“Packaging” and sales so dominate our collective imaginations that even Richard the would-be Wozniak can’t escape it. When he tries to urge his fledgling company team on to greatness instead of corporate-dictated conformity, he exhorts them, “Let’s just think different! Oh, no, don’t ‘Think Different,’ that’s Apple. . . Let’s just do it!” — of course, that’s Nike.

From the Silicon Valley pilot on, we see the relentless hawking of product being presented as if it were global missionary work, featuring salespeople as our new secular saints. Omnipresent ads featuring Hooli (read: Google) founder Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) position him as a savior figure surrounded by smiling African children, or standing tall in some remote region cradling a baby goat like a glorified Peace Corps worker while his voice-over intones,

Hooli is about people, Hooli is about innovative technology that makes a difference, transforming the world as we know it, making the world a better place — through minimal message-oriented transport layers!

Loony siren songs like this have drawn worshipping multitudes to the tech world, vainly dreaming of combining the pursuit of immense profits with vague do-goodery — the chance to rake in millions, nay billions, while “making the world a better place.”

In my own place of employment, UC Berkeley, I’m surrounded by twenty-somethings, the-best-and-brightest type of young people whose fondest wish is to be part of a startup or to join an established tech company like Google, Apple, or Pixar. I look at these lambs headed for the slaughter and wish them well, figuring we’re all choosing a slaughterhouse in which to die horribly, anyway.

But they really ought to watch Silicon Valley before they go, at least, in order to prepare themselves for a tech industry that comes off as equal parts silly and vile, with just the thinnest wire of inspired innovation running through the muck. Mike Judge and his team have done something very bold in firmly tying the progress of show to the progress of Richard’s startup, for good or ill.

Even the frail, child-like name of the company, “Pied Piper,” indicates its vulnerability. All the company members except Richard despise the name. Deadpan Satanist Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) thanks the Dark Lord for the opportunity to change it, and he and acerbic coder Dinesh (Kumail Nanjani) demolish it with insults (“Wide Diaper!”) and savage the unfortunate implications of the fairy tale that inspired it.

After all, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is a guy who contracts to lure the rats out of a rat-infested town with his magic flute, but he’s bilked out of his fee by the crooked townsfolk, and he gets his revenge by luring their children to their doom with the same pipe. Lots of scamming, nastiness, vermin, and luring-to-doom in that story, which doesn’t bode well for the company.

If the startup fails, that’s dire, and if the startup succeeds, it seems doomed to follow the logic already dictated by established corporate culture. Erlich lays it out for Richard in episode two, when he’s urging Richard to oust his best friend Big Head (Josh Brener) as a pre-condition to forming the company. It’s regarded as a necessary part of the process of making oneself a sufficiently callous jerk to be part of the wonderful world of business:

Richard, if you’re not an asshole, it creates a kind of asshole-vacuum, and that void is filled by other assholes. . . If you’re not an asshole, this company dies!

In the next shot, Richard is looking up “Business Plan” on Wikipedia.

In Silicon Valley, we are fortunate to have the brilliant Mike Judge in charge, as opposed to his idiot twin, whom we’ll call Jike Mudge, just to avoid confusion. Sometimes the credit says Mike Judge, see, but it’s really Jike Mudge at work.

Mike Judge gave us the excellent Beavis and Butt-head, Office Space, and Silicon Valley. Jike Mudge is responsible for the dismally stupid films Extract and Idiocracy and, from what I hear, the short-lived show The Goode Family. I’d also blame Jike Mudge for King of the Hill, but I realize that, for some reason, a lot of you like that show. So let’s call that one collaboration between Mike and Jike.

The hand of Jike Mudge is often uppermost when blanket socio-political assumptions get laid bare. Idiocracy may be the prime example: in this comedy about a dystopian future, we find stupidity related entirely to the lower classes and intelligence with the upper classes. The premise of the film is that, because smart upper class people are so careful about the decision to have and properly nurture children, they gradually die out, while lower class morons, all tattoos and obesity and inability to use effective birth control, breed like rabbits.

The end result, after many generations, is an earth populated by cretins living in a devolving, dysfunctional trash heap of a culture that Jike Mudge associates at every turn with working class entertainment such as monster truck rallies, raucous TV game shows, and rude physical comedy.

Apparently Jike Mudge never met a stupid rich person doing stupid upper-class-associated things like spending zillions of dollars collecting those dopey conceptual art pieces, or paying New Age gurus top salaries to stroke their egos, or wrecking the economy and refusing to pay taxes. In order to correct his view that money necessarily confirms intelligence, Jike Mudge really ought to watch Silicon Valley and pay close attention to the dense hubris of the Gavin Belson character.

He should also drink in the many wonderful party scenes in the show, featuring grotesquely wealthy nerd-kings wasting wads of cash in vain attempts to have a fabulous time, dressing up as ancient Roman patricians in bedraggled togas, drinking “liquefied shrimp,” talking to actresses hired for the occasion to pretend to be interested in them.

When tech venture capitalist Peter Gregory (the late, lamented Christopher Evan Welch), decked out like Julius Caesar and carried into the party on a throne, gives a blank-eyed, halting, enervated speech that further dampens the already lame festivities, it’s a prime example of Mike Judge’s ability to nail down the representative figures of our time:

Welcome to the Peter Gregory Foundation’s Fourth Annual Orgy of Caring. The first three were fine… There is a second bar in the back, where the line is much shorter. Thank you, I’m finished now.

When it comes to closely observing and then distilling human behaviors onscreen, Judge has few peers. Judge has said of his Beavis and Butt-head characters that he assumed everyone knew teenage guys who talked like that, and it turned out everyone did. But we didn’t quite realize it until he crystalized their speech patterns for us.

He’s doing the same type of observational comedy in Silicon Valley, though he’s catching some flak from certain critics and techies on these grounds: (1) supposedly the show isn’t sufficiently knowledgeable about the inner workings of the tech world, and (2) in emphasizing the male-dominated tech world by featuring almost no female characters in prominent roles, the show is part of the problem.

Regarding the second charge, Mike Judge defends himself in a recent Newsweek article:

 “The percentage of women at VC firms is something like, I don’t know, ten, and the percent that are actually partners is four, so in a way, we’re actually showing [that]. . .”

He adds, “The shots of the audience in the seventh and eighth episodes are actual shots from TechCrunch that I took. I didn’t say, ‘No women allowed at TechCrunch!’ It’s a real audience — a sea of dudes with a few women. In a way, I think we’re taking shots at this world for not having women in it.

But merely mocking this reality isn’t enough, according to Monica Guzman of Geekwire:

The tech industry is hardly the only one where women don’t always fit in. A female friend who’s a stock analyst told her Facebook network recently how the foul-mouthed macho culture of “Wolf of Wall Street” is — still — not as far from reality as you might think.

You don’t see big stories about “Wall Street’s Man Problem,” and that’s part of my point: The tech industry really is progressive. It wants to change. It was clear in TechCrunch’s reaction to Titstare [referring to a highly offensive app that debuted at TechCrunch, which is mocked in Silicon Valley as Bighead’s “NipAlert” app]: When people in tech see a problem, they care. That’s why this is interesting. That’s why it’s worth talking about it at all.

The idea seems to be that Silicon Valley should function as a show celebrating a culture that “cares” — an “Orgy of Caring,” as Peter Gregory might say — but needs just a little minor reform, hardly worth mentioning. It’s as if the tech industry were some harmless, shaky little collection of charitable organizations that might fold under criticism. Sometimes it seems like a wonder anyone attempts to satirize any aspect of American life, no matter how big and outrageous the target it might be.

Regarding the second charge about Judge’s lack of insider status, Judge has a bit of minor personal history in Silicon Valley, as the world knows because Judge has done so many interviews about it while promoting the show. Judge began his career with a PhD in physics and briefly worked as an engineer in a late-1980s startup company.

Though he hated corporate culture and bailed out early on, this experience found its way into the memorably incisive Office Space, and twenty-five years later, helped catalyze Silicon Valley as well. Beyond that, it’s clear that Judge and his Silicon Valley team have done a certain amount of consulting and have a certain amount of access to the world they’re satirizing.

But not nearly enough, according to David Auerbach of Slate:

The best satire, from Juvenal to Jonathan Swift to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to Brass Eye to Veepto Sex House, homes in with laser precision on its target’s weaknesses. Not only does HBO’s new Silicon Valley wield a butter knife instead of a scalpel, but creator Mike Judge . . . is not even operating on the right patient. Instead of pulling back the curtain on startup hype and eviscerating empty techie values, Silicon Valley… is an upscale Big Bang Theory. . . The recurrent themes — that people want money and will sell one another out in stupid ways while deceiving themselves into thinking they’re good people — are nothing new and hardly specific to the setting. Since satire only gains its viciousness from knowing particularity, the show fires one-size-fits-all blanks.

Personally, I would’ve sworn that “pulling back the curtain on startup hype and eviscerating empty techie values” was practically the log-line of the show.

Though perhaps Mike Judge isn’t doing satire as ferocious as Juvenal’s (nobody is, as you’d know if you actually sat down and read some Juvenal), the show’s “recurrent themes” are nothing like the bland and simplistic “people want money.”

The lead character, Richard, gives up a $10 million buyout in order to live out a specific kind of dream that is, arguably, the entrepreneurial tech-addled American dream right now. It involves achieving a complex set of utter contradictions: radical freethinking autonomy in a cerebral utopia that also works as a ruthlessly efficient corporate structure while allowing for wild earthy pleasures that come from becoming, as Richard enthuses, “the Vikings of our day!”

His decision not to take the buyout is so high-risk that his cheery doctor cautions him against attempting suicide the half-assed way a previous patient, similarly situated, did:

Just FYI, if you’re ever going to shoot yourself, don’t hold the gun up to the temple, because that just basically took out both of his optic nerves and half of his face. He may’ve been a genius programmer, but not so much about human anatomy!

But Auerbach, a former Google employee, sees nothing but the show’s missed targets:

The show briefly teases on Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto but ignores the far wider target of Ayn Rand–style techno-libertarianism, possibly because Judge himself is a pro-gun libertarian.

Well, I’ll admit Auerbach has a real talking point there. In future seasons we might yet have to admit that, in the sibling rivalry between Mike Judge and Jike Mudge, ultimately it’s Jike gaining the upper hand.

But in the meantime, let’s glory in the first season of Silicon Valley.