Put your prime digits in the air for Start-Ups: Silicon Valley (Bravo, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET). Despite and because of its many points of disconnection from the reality of the industry it purports to illuminate, I liked it and quite enjoyed biting my thumb at its cast (like a Capulet servant) while watching the pilot. The executive producer is one Randi Zuckerberg, whose capsule CV reads like, “formerly led marketing/social good at Facebook. Currently Founder & CEO of Zuckerberg Media.” What makes Randi some kind of tech-biz pasha is her sibling relationship with the power incarnated by Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg—the idea of him, a thing derived from the David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin vision, the presentations of journalists, and the gossip of the properly connected—is a numinous presence in Start-Up’s many gauzy frames. This is a reality show of, by, and for Generation 2.0.
The six principal subjects—single people pursuing careers in computers—speak about entrepreneurial dreams in evangelistic tones, expressing, consciously and otherwise, the values of the digital frontier. They’re in their late 20s and early 30s, living in the city of San Francisco and the valley of Santa Clara, where apparently it is a common career plan to stride one’s personal brand across the virtual stage in real time as a means of achieving power on the scale of the pharaoh.
It is striking to see so many well-educated, career-focused, young meritocrats gathered in one pop fishbowl, introducing themselves in the compound sentences of Fulbright interviews and summer-associate lunches, spiking their assertions of blue-chip goals with reality-soap I’m-all-that braggadocio. These monologues are, by the standards of Bravo, uncommonly long and remarkably cogent, and if you squint hard enough, scenes with two characters in particular resemble segments of Michael Apted’s 28 Up.
I speak here of Hermione and Ben, siblings who hail from England and now live with roommates on a mansion on a hill in the Castro, where they strew Union Jack throw pillows about. Separated as toddlers when their parents divorced, Hermione and Ben have reunited in order to rivet us with their subtly creepy demarcation of personal boundaries. “We’re doing a startup together and living together and trying to take over the world together. …” Hermione is a tech reporter. Ben is a “serial entrepreneur” who says he made his first million at 17. He also says that he runs 43 companies, and in so saying he triggers the bullshit alarm of a venture capitalist he’s pitching. Ben’s new project is an app that will “allow you to know your life expectancy in real time.” Question for Ben: Does the app take into account that right now you guys are killing me with this shit?
My next queries are directed toward Sarah, a video blogger based in Palo Alto. Are you for real? If so, may I take you out to breakfast for a profile? Or, given your testimony that it takes you two hours to complete your workday beauty regimen (“three or four for a party”), maybe we should shoot for lunch. Sarah is the kind of person who appears on business magazines’ “30 Under 30” lists, and such magazine have fact-checkers, but still I must ask if she is for real because she combines serious movie-starlet looks with silly operetta-diva behavior and the resume of a caricature of a social-media maven. Sarah and her toy dog—is little Juniper a bichon frise?—live at the Four Seasons in Palo Alto. “I love living in this bubble!” she says persuasively. In exchange for room and board, Sarah does the Four Seasons’ “social-media marketing work,” she tells us while we are watching her mirrored reflection, which is wearing just a bra and panties, get dressed for work.
Sarah has made a career of “charting everyday moments in video online.” Her last name is Austin, like the capital of Texas. It happens that Sarah’s trumped-up beef with Hermione—the interpersonal-turmoil centerpiece of the pilot—originated at an industry event in that city. Hermione: “At South-by you did something that was very unprofessional … ” Sarah: “Like, what was it? Or are you mad because I made out with your brother?”
The brunette is Kim, who heads marketing at a company that “builds and optimizes Facebook ads.” (Has she materialized here a demo or product placement?) Like her Start-Ups colleagues, Kim does the generation in voices of upspeak and drawl, happy with her life in “the online advertising worrrrld?” She’s a former pro cheerleader—Energee!, the official dance team of the Milwaukee Bucks—and she helps the show stay sexy like a Valley Girl at the Stanford Shopping Center sashaying from Sephora to the Apple store.
We round out the cast with Dwight, who toga-parties hard after 12-hour days hunched writing code like a monk at his desk, and David, an alumnus of Carnegie Mellon and Google. David has racked frequent-flyer miles with the cosmetic surgeon, the dermatologist, the personal trainer, the spray-tan technician, and as we meet him, he is struggling to develop an app “around reaching personal goals.” Hearing this, you may think back to Ben’s life-expectancy project and find it meaningful that Start-Ups pays such attention (or at least lip service) to doing-well-by-do-goodism. Here you see worship of Mammon wound up with social conscientiousness, messianic fantasy, and philanthropic fantasy in a slightly new way. “Geeks are the new rock stars,” Kim says, and the show plays as if its great rock idol is Bono stalking through a Louis Vuitton photo shoot on his way to eradicate poverty.
Seized by the entrepreneurial spirit of Start-Ups, I’ve begun developing an elevator pitch for an interpretation of its worldview, which involves analysis of the scene where David drops in on Sarah at the Four Seasons in advance of that toga party. They primp as if spray-tanning en route to a session of the Roman Senate. Gazing upon Sarah’s midriff, David says, “You think anybody’s gonna look at you and be all like jealous? Like, ‘That bitch is so hot! I hate her!’ ” This has always been half of the point of looking good, but there is something distinctly of the moment in Sarah’s forced-laughing reply: “I got so many haters!” This is the expression of a relatively new ambition—to accrue envy as if it were an earning asset.