Silicon Valley, the place and the idea, is a fairly easy target for comedy. The combination of nerd culture, oceans of money and many of its inhabitants’ inflated sense of self-worth seems ripe for piercing with sharply observed jokes.
Easy targets sometimes mean easy jokes, though. That’s not the case, mercifully, with HBO’s new comedy “Silicon Valley,” which premieres Sunday (April 6). What really makes it work is just how sharp creator Mike Judge’s eye is. The details feel right to this outsider — and people more familiar with the real Silicon Valley are vouching for it too.
Judge has combined that eye for detail — down to making sure that code scribbled on whiteboards in the background is accurate — with well-developed characters and a great mix of sophisticated and lowbrow humor. HBO has paired it “Veep” on Sundays, instantly making one of the better hours of comedy on TV.
“Silicon Valley” centers on Richard (Thomas Middleditch), a low-level coder at a tech company called Hooli (or “hooli” — as one character notes in a later episode, every company in the Valley uses lower-case letters in their logos) and lives in an “incubator” house run by Erlich (T.J. Miller), who made some money selling an app and now puts programmers up in exchange for a stake in whatever they might create.
Almost accidentally, Richard hits upon an algorithm for compressing files that could be a genuine breakthrough. He’s then caught up in a battle over his innovation between Hooli’s CEO, Gavin Belson (Matt Jones) and Gavin’s former partner, a deeply eccentric venture capitalist named Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch). Gavin is the kind of guy who likes to wrap his cutthroat business practices in a cloak of “making the world a better place” and whose underlings talk about how magical it is to be in his presence … but also a guy who can’t set up his newest app without help and gives one of Richard’s friends a huge raise just out of spite.
Peter, on the other hand, is authentically strange and is brought to fascinating life through Welch, who speaks in halting, often bewildering half-sentences and gives a sense that the character is thinking about four levels above everyone else in the room. There’s a sequence involving Peter’s fascination with Burger King in episode 3 that is just a marvel of loopy comic timing.
Welch died in December while the show was still in production, and although Judge and fellow executive producer Alec Berg say they were able to continue with the season’s story without much course correction, but it’s a shame we won’t get to see more of Welch’s weird, wonderful creation.
Judge, who worked in Silicon Valley for a short time in the late 1980s, offers up a raft of great details about the setting and his characters. Richard is on a low rung at Hooli, the object of derision from the “bro-grammers” a step above him. His incubator roommate Gilfoyle (Martin Starr, acerbically funny as always) is a Satanist but corrects people when they call him that (“I’m a LaVeyan Satanist, with theistic tendencies”). A graffiti artist Erlich enlists to design a logo for Richard’s company, Pied Piper, asks about stock options. Even Richard’s doctor and the clerk at BevMo are pitching apps.
“Silicon Valley” has its share of pause-the-DVR laugh lines, but it’s not as relentlessly funny as, say, Judge’s “Office Space.” It does, however, get better as it goes along. HBO sent five of the season’s eight episodes to critics, and there’s a definite upward trend as the actors and writers find their footing. If “Office Space” was the workplace comedy we needed in the late ’90s, “Silicon Valley” is just the right one for right now.
“Silicon Valley” premieres at 10 p.m. ET Sunday on HBO.