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(WATCH) Episode 1 of HBO's spot-on new comedy 'Silicon Valley'
Call Silicon Valley topical if you must. It is that. But I hate calling things topical… it's lazy. It lends a backhanded compliment to something that could be outrightly terrific. Calling it topical only gives off the sense that something isn't ahead of its time or wonderfully nostalgic in any way.
If something is topical, the upfront assumption is that it's only good because it's right now. A movie like Up in the Air was called topical because the job market sucked in 2009, even though the film was terrific on its own. But the praise is as critical as the put-down, the same sort of patronizing but positive remark you get from your father's friends or your older colleagues when they tell you, "You did a great job considering how young you are."
So, I did a great job, or I was just better this one time than everyone else you perceive to be below you?
But Silicon Valley did a great job. And they'll do more, because creator Mike Judge and his roster of actors seem to understand the scene they're playing out and because we're all just as fed up – but still in love – with the Valley as they are.
The show starts the way you think it will: a few nerds work for an exasperatingly long-winded, into-itself corporation called hooli. We never learn what the company does, only that claims to be changing the world and doing things different, even though the pie is as often as oppressive as the broccoli.
"I'd like for this company to just be different than hooli and all the rest," the show's main character Richard says at the close of Episode 1. "Like, let's not turn this into a corporate cult, you know with bike meetings and voluntary retreats that are actually mandatory, claiming to make the world a better place all the time.
He then stumbles awkwardly through a few slogans that are already taken – like Apple's "think different" and Nike's "just do it" – while trying to inspire his already-inspired team of programmers and one opportunistic but heart-of-gold investor.
And with that, the template for this show – and the main conflict that will not dominate these characters from Silicon Valley's inception – is set.
How can your company actually be different? Richard can't even end a speech without borrowing a trademarked nugget from the "corporate cults" he has just called out. He professes his admiration for Steve Wozniak earlier in the show, in opposition to the "poser" Steve Jobs… but is the road-less-travelled's love for Wozniak any less of an institution now? You don't have to be a genius to be a Steve Jobs fanboy, sure. But hipsters know as well as anyone, the minute you do something to be ironic or different or iconoclastic, you're all of a sudden a part of a new wave.
Jack Kerouac hated being known as a Beat. Apple always wanted to be cooler than Microsoft – which it perceived as the industry's Coca Cola – until it was, and then it had nowhere to go but beside itself.
In Silicon Valley, we see Richard cluelessly invent something that could change the world, and there's no other way to describe it than that overused, hyperbolic cliche. CHANGE THE WORLD.
He develops a pretty lame app which will let you search out music, so you can see whether it's copyrighted or trademarked or off-limits. But hidden in that app is an algorithm that lets you shrink any music file down to next to nothing – a couple of megabytes – and download the file in an instant.
It's not just another social app. It's a software, and Richard and his panic attacks are launched into a bidding war between his own boss at hooli and some dink named Peter Gregory, who we see early on in the episode in a hilarious and scathing, but subtle, parody of TED Talks. The long glances to nowhere, the folded right hand that bobs with every important syllable, and the long pauses between each heavenly word... it's all there.
Richard's boss is offering him the cash, straight up. Gregory is offering him seed money and control of his own new company called Pied Piper.
And of course, there's a cute girl, too, played by Amanda Crew.
She'll most likely be taken – by Gregory, perhaps – and Richard will have to fight for her and show his golden side. Every show needs a Jim and Pam, after all.
The attitude is here and the plot complies. Silicon Valley somehow turns a predictable premise into something fresh. The acting is terrific, as is the casting.
"It's like Asperger's Entourage," said comedian T.J. Miller, who plays Ehrlich (to Mashable). "We've taken great pains to make it as real as possible, not only in the fact-checking but also in the texture and the characters of Silicon Valley."
Even the show's soul-less guys – like Richard's boss, Galvin Belson – have their moments of Ari Gold-ish comedic touch.
For example, in one monologue, Belson – who's watching a flock of programmers walk into the building below him – remarks on how his employees always travel in the same stereotypical groups of five.
"There's always a tall, skinny white guy. Short, skinny Asian guy. Fat guy with a pony tail. Some guy with crazy facial hair. And then, an East Indian guy," Belson says, while his employees talk him up to Richard, who's waiting in hooli's executive lobby. "It's like they trade guys until they all have the right group."
And there's another case of the show's overlapping precision – not only do Richard and his crew mock Gavin and his, but the executive, TED-talkie types like Belson and Gregory (and, we'll assume Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates) mock them, too.
We're given a look at Silicon Valley with all its contradictions… nerdy people without money but with misplaced ambition, business guys and titans ready to slurp it all up like Daniel Day Lewis with a milkshake, an ugly city submerged in overpriced, unattainable, average real estate, and a bunch of twilight-ing old people living side-by-side with entrepreneurs in search of the 21st century's gold rush.
And it's all great because it's on HBO. If this was on NBC or some shooting-for-the-middle, once-ahead broadcast network, it would have a laugh track or a schizophrenic week-to-week schedule. It would be the next Outsourced, not its own story.
"We could be the vikings of our day," Richard says.
His audience doesn't really get the metaphor, but Silicon Valley's audience should.
The only thing wrong with Episode 1?
It's just 30 minutes long.
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