Saturday, June 11, 2016

Where the Boys Are

Mike Judge and Alec Berg with the cast of Silicon Valley

Every once in awhile someone gets it right.  That's certainly the case with Silicon Valley, an HBO sitcom that has given life in the "valley" a Seinfeld-like quality, largely because Mike Judge has teamed up with Alec Berg, who was both a writer and producer for arguably the greatest sitcom of all time.  These two are naturals for television.  Their movies have bit hit and miss, largely because their brand of humor needs room to play out.  Their quirky characters need time to develop until a natural repartee emerges that makes the jokes click.

People forget that Seinfeld bombed in its first season and was very much in danger of being cancelled.  It took a while for these four seemingly mismatched characters to come together and learn to play off each other.  That was pretty much the case with Silicon Valley in its first season although it had the benefit of being about something that captured viewers' attention.  It cast a light on Silicon Valley that allows us to laugh at its presumption that it is "making the world a better place."

As Andrew Marantz writes of the show's staying power, now in its third season after what could have easily been a one-and-done season, in this  New Yorker article.   The premise arises from the clash between the idealism of Steve Jobs and the libertarian forces that now shape the tech world.  The story of Richard Hendricks, the show's chief protagonist, is grounded in whether he can hold onto his vision of a universal information compression platform that he believes will make the world a better place without compromising it in a vapid libertarian world that is product driven.  No longer does a program or app really have to do anything, it just has to be marketable, which the show mercilessly pokes fun at with such apps as Nip Alert.

The show gets away with a ton of sexist and racist jokes because it is done in a jocular office banter that we can all immediately identify with, and also because the characters rarely get away with it.  There are immediate consequences to almost every off-color joke,   Poor Richard takes the brunt of these blows as he struggles mightily to hold onto his vision.

Judge and Berg go out of their way to make the show seem real, unlike The Big Bang Theory which is content with the domestic comedy of its science nerds.  In Silicon Valley, the writers actually take time to explain what compression is with the hilarious "dick jerk" analogy from season one.   Beavis and Butthead meet Jerry and George.  As a result, the show has become the buzz of  the real Silicon Valley, which the writers mine to find new material for their show.  Bring in Dick Costolo, former Twitter CEO and once a student at Second City Theatre and you feel like this show could go on for a very long time.

It also helps that the casting is nearly flawless.  The actors play their roles to razor-sharp perfection, almost making you feel that these are their real selves.  This is also what made Seinfeld work or any good sitcom for that matter.  The actors embody their roles.  One actor does seem a bit out of place however.  Amanda Crew is not given much to go on as Monica.  Not even the romance the writers hinted at between her and Richard ever materialized.  I guess they were afraid they would end up with a situation like that on Big Bang where soon they would have to provide a quirky girlfriend for all their characters, which they similarly made fun of in a recent episode from season three.

You quickly understand that Judge and Berg aren't very good at the romance thing, as made painfully evident when Richard tries to court another woman in that episode.  The romance was a carry-over from the previous episode, but Richard and Rachel break up over a tab-vs-space bar squabble before they have had time to even consummate their relationship.   It's best when the writers stick to fantasizing over relationships like the one Dinesh imagines with an Estonian girl over the Internet, presenting himself as "Pakistani Denzel."  It works until he devises a higher resolution image feed for the two to use, at which point the gig is up.

With the third season now drawing to a close, the actors have all gained celebrity.  T.J. Miller, who was probably the best known actor heading into the series, enjoyed sharing an anecdote with Marantz where he met Elon Musk at an after-party in Redwood City.  A woman came up to them asking if she could have a picture.  Naturally, Musk thought it was him who she wanted to have a picture with and was visibly disappointed to be the one left holding the camera.  Musk apparently wasn't very high on the show to begin with, so this probably killed it as far as he was concerned.

It is this overblown sense of self-importance that is the show's ultimate target.  Miller's character Erlich Bachman is the stand-in for many over-inflated egos; as is Gavin Belson on a larger scale, the head of Hooli, the show's stand-in for Google.  They even had fun with Google X in one episode in which, you guessed it, a monkey jerks off with a bionic arm.  I don't know if this puerile humor is the staple of the real Silicon Valley or simply Mike Judge's brand of humor but it fits well with the characters.  It apparently didn't sit well with Astro Teller, the head of Google X, who believes the company's "moonshot factory" is devoted to serious research.  Likewise, PETA was none too pleased with a recent episode that featured horses having sex, in what has been a long line of animal jokes.

I suppose Silicon Valley isn't for everyone, but it is a great pleasure to see Judge and Berg turn their witty brand of humor on America's most well known incubator of high tech ideas.  If success is measured by google search, the sitcom comes up first when you type in the name, and dominates the entries thereafter.

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