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Silicon Valley

Series Premiere
Director: Mike Judge
Cast: Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, Christopher Evan Welch, Josh Brener, Zach Woods, Amanda Crew
Regular airtime: Sundays, 10:30pm ET

(HBO)

Starting Up

Silicon Valley’s first episode is a premise pilot. The extensive world-building of a premise pilot is tricky for comedies, leaving less time for jokes. And Silicon Valley, being set behind the scenes at a technology company, requires a lot of set up before it can get going. Fortunately, the second and third episodes do get going.


The show, which premiered Sunday 6 April, opens with a group of youngish computer coders living in a house in Palo Alto, California. Erlich (T.J. Miller) owns the house, having made some money developing and selling a computer program, and now he acts as a benefactor, providing living space for these employees of the Google-like Hooli Corporation. He calls it his “incubator,” hoping that his housemates will create a lucrative product, and that he can grab ten percent of the profits for himself in exchange for the providing the living quarters.


Even as he might have a vision, however, his employees ride to work every day on swanky official Hooli buses and complain about the forced preciousness of the Hooli experience. We see illustration of such preciousness when marketing people have a meeting while riding a bizarre four-person bicycle and set backgrounds showcase an elaborate branding campaign featuring Hooli founder Gavin Belson (Matt Ross).


It’s not until about halfway through the first episode, when a couple of programmers (the douchebag jocks of this show) take a look at prototype music software designed by shy sad-sack Richard (Thomas Middlemitch) that the focus of Silicon Valley becomes clear. It seems that Richard’s program allows files to be compressed with no loss of quality. This is a big deal, as the program could have an enormous impact on both storage space and download speeds. Richard immediately finds himself the subject of a bidding war between Hooli and venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch). Hooli wants to buy the program outright for millions of dollars, while Gregory offers Richard help in getting his own company started, in exchange for a five percent stake.


It’s not a spoiler to say that Richard goes with Gregory’s offer. Although it takes the rest of the episode for Richard to make that decision, it sets Silicon Valley in motion as a series. Richard and his friends in Erlich’s house are going to form a startup tech company despite having no idea what they’re doing. It takes a lot of legwork to get to this point, and so it may not be too surprising that the only laughs in the pilot are prompted by the reliable Andy Daly in a cameo as a doctor who talks Richard through his panic attack. Everything else inspires a weak chuckle at best.


In the second and third episodes, the show’s premise and direction are now clear, and so it focuses more keenly on integrating creator Mike Judge’s wry, low-key sense of humor into the plot. When Richard and Erlich meet with Peter Gregory and discover he actually wants them to have a business plan drawn up before he’ll fund them, their dialogue and rhythms are perfectly funny and uncomfortable at the same time.


The scene in which Richard’s best friend Big Head (Josh Brener) unwittingly explains why he’s completely superfluous to the startup achieves a similar effect, showing how innovation can emerge out of nerdiness, ego, and also, lack of ego. And as yet another Hooli employee, Jared, Zach Woods ’ soft-spoken, off-balance makes him seem a natural fit for Judge’s world: Jared’s explanation as to why “Pied Piper” might not be the best name for the company is especially sharp.


These latter episodes establish obstacles both large and small for Richard and his friends to overcome. Hooli is racing against Richard to produce their own version of the program and drive Pied Piper out of business before they even get started. It doesn’t help that Peter Gregory is less benevolent and reliable than he seemed when making his initial offer to Richard. A subplot that has Gregory becoming distracted and obsessed with Burger King goes a long way towards defining Gregory’s weird genius. (Christopher Evan Welch is excellent in the role: he passed away during filming in December 2013 and he will be missed.) When the team discovers that a California fertilizer company already has the name Pied Piper, Richard’s decision to drive out to the country in order to ask the owner for permission to use the name makes for great culture clash comedy.


There are a few elements of Silicon Valley that are still works in progress at this point. The force of Miller’s personality can be overwhelming, and a little of Erlich goes a long way: his solo mushroom trip is faintly amusing, but a distraction from the central plot. It’s also distressing that Amanda Crew, as Gregory’s assistant Monica, is the only female character in these first few episodes: she lives in a boy’s world, made clear when Erlich hires a stripper to celebrate the launch of the startup.


This boys’ world isn’t a hallmark of Judge’s style, but it’s not a surprise either. The show mostly reminds you of what he does well, including a running gag where nearly every person Richard meets (the doctor, a grocery store employee) stops to tell him about their own tech startup ideas are “winners.” The people around him also seem to think he’s got lots of money, being the owner of a tech startup, even as we see he’s broke, still waiting for the startup to get more fully started. The show is already underway, full of promise.

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