Warning! This piece contains spoilers for Silicon Valley.
The best satire, from Juvenal to Jonathan Swift to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to Brass Eye to Veep to 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 (Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill) is not even operating on the right patient. Instead of pulling back the curtain on startup hype and eviscerating empty techie values, Silicon Valley (Sundays, 10 p.m.) is an upscale Big Bang Theory that gets its laughs from a mural of a Pakistani guy penetrating the Statue of Liberty. This show even forgets to make a joke about Google Plus. (Disclosure: I used to work for Google, and my wife still does.)
References to Mass Effect 3 and GitHub reveal the show to indeed be set in the present day, though evidence is otherwise lean. There is little reference to other tech companies, large or small, and little of actual tech culture; aside from the Google-like offices of Hooli, Silicon Valley is not identifiably set in Silicon Valley. Consultations with computer scientists resulted in an injection of reasonable-sounding computer jargon but no absorption of Silicon Valley’s actual culture. Judge himself worked for a Silicon Valley firm for a couple of months 25 years ago (in the very same job that also inspired Judge’s superior Office Space), which may help explain why no one on this show browses the Web, tweets, plays video games, or texts. (The Mindy Project has more texting than this show.) It also may help explain why the razor-sharp tech hipster spoof Nathan Barley, from way back in 2005, still feels more contemporary than this rehashed Beavis and Ballmer.
Silicon Valley writer Clay Tarver has said, “When I first read the pilot, I thought maybe it was too harsh.” If Silicon Valley is harsh, then Brooklyn Nine-Nine is Serpico. Harsh would be tech billionaire Peter Thiel plotting to build a private offshore nation on the one hand while building government surveillance tools with his company Palantir on the other. Harsh would be Zynga ex-CEO Mark Pincus doing “every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues” (his words), then extorting stock options from his own employees. Harsh would be Sony installing viral rootkits on their customers’ desktops to prevent them from ripping CDs. Harsh is anything having to do with Something Awful or 4chan. There is an abundance of ripe and ready targets, none of which the show sees fit to mention.
The setup is that young, callow genius Thomas (Thomas Middleditch) inadvertently discovers the holy grail of compression algorithms while working for a tech titan called Hooli. He leaves to found his startup, Pied Piper, with a couple of friends, while billionaires Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch, playing a Peter Thiel/Elon Musk investor) and Gavin Belson (the ever-sleazy Matt Ross as a Steve Jobs/Larry Page CEO) use Pied Piper as a pawn in their own rivalry. But instead of vicious satire, we get jokes about bad teleconferencing latency, apps named NipAlert, and that old standby, the hilarious drug vision trip.
Instead, we’re stuck with the paint-by-numbers trials and travails of five friends torn between success and one another, because this is a satire with heart. (It tests well.) Instead, we get jokes about how biz-dev guy Jared (Veep’s Zach Woods) sang a cappella at Sarah Lawrence—because he’s a wimp, you see! Instead, we get a lame subplot where a Latino street artist (named Chuy, possibly as a loose reference to the great David Choe, who got rich doing murals for Facebook) is hired to do a logo for Pied Piper and does a mural of Kumail Nanjiani (as Dinesh) in Aztec costume having sex with the Statue of Liberty. Edgy.