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Silicon Valley gains confidence over time

'Silicon Valley' premieres tonight on HBO.

T.J. Miller, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods and Thomas Middleditch (from left) star in ‘Silicon Valley,’ premiering tonight on HBO.


Like one of its nerdy principal characters, HBO’s Silicon Valley, which premieres tonight, seems painfully unsure of itself during its first half-hour episode. Co-created by Mike Judge (Office Space, King of the Hill) and based partly on Judge’s personal ’80s experiences as a Silicon Valley engineer, this sometimes savage new sitcom takes awhile to find its tone and comic groove, but improves steadily over the course of the initial five episodes HBO sent out for preview.
Set in the tech-centric region of Northern California where everyone, it seems, is looking for the next hot app, Silicon Valley focuses primarily on a group of socially awkward programmers sharing quarters in the Hacker Hostel start-up “incubator” owned by dotcom millionaire Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller, The Goodwin Games). In exchange for their room and board, the resident nerds toil away at the programs they have in development, to which Erlich is promised a 10 percent share.
One of the group, Richard (Thomas Middleditch), is concentrating on Pied Piper, an app for songwriters, but billionaire venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) passes on his pitch. Some senior programmers at the tech giant Hooli, however, discover that Richard’s Pied Piper program contains a powerful data-compression algorithm that has limitless commercial possibilities.
An intense bidding war breaks out between Hooli’s hyper-intense CEO, Gavin Belson (recurring guest star Matt Ross, Big Love), who wants to buy Pied Piper outright for $10 million, and a newly interested Gregory, who offers to help Richard develop and grow Pied Piper while giving him a $200,000 cash infusion for start-up costs in exchange for five percent of the company.
Overwhelmed by his good fortune, the deeply insecure Richard opts for the latter, dreaming of creating his own Google-like success story, joined by the other house nerds: Big Head (Josh Brener), his longtime best friend; sly Pakistani programmer Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani, Franklin & Bash); arrogant Gilfoyle (Martin Starr, Party Down); and, in episode two, business guru Jared (Zach Woods, The Office), a former Hulli executive.
Alas, Richard – whose social ineptitude is matched only by his naivete – quickly finds that he lacks the right stuff to swim with the big Silicon Valley sharks and he must weather one staggering blow after another as the series unfolds.
Co-creator Judge, who also directs four of the eight episodes in Season 1 of Silicon Valley, clearly has, at best, mixed feelings about the time he spent in this world, given his merciless take-downs of many of its personalities (real-life Silicon Valley engineers reportedly have given the series very high marks for accuracy). Anyone who tunes in expecting a variation on TV’s other hot nerd comedy, The Big Bang Theory, is in for a shock.
Straight-on heroes are hard to find in Silicon Valley, and most of its characters are emotionally stunted, if not obsessively selfish. In some respects, Richard is the most admirable, but he’s a techno-Forrest Gump whose successes are, for the most part, flukes. He doesn’t even grasp the most valuable part of his own computer program until someone else points it out to him, and even then, he can’t even articulate what he wants to do with it.
“You turned down $10 million to be able to develop something that you, as the head of the company, cannot even describe to another human being,” an exasperated Dinesh points out to him at one point.
After weeks of unusually heavy promotion, HBO is giving Silicon Valley a platinum-level launch tonight, positioning the new comedy behind the Season 4 premiere of the very nerd-friendly smash Game of Thrones, and if tonight’s pilot is uneven, by episode three or four Silicon Valley pretty much hits its stride and delivers a reliable number of belly laughs. Among its tight ensemble, I’d give top honors to Welch, who raises social awkwardness to epic new heights, and Woods, whose hilariously self-effacing Jared (“I like angry people, because I know where I stand with them”) is perhaps the show’s most endearing character.
A friendship is tested on 'Silicon Valley.'

Thomas Middleditch and Josh Brener star as two longtime best friends whose relationship is sorely tested in ‘Silicon Valley.’

Sex, ‘60s style, on Showtime

masters of sex
Showtime’s provocative new dramedy Masters of Sex, which premieres tonight, goes the Mad Men period route in its depiction of the pioneering work by Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the field of human sexuality. The series opens in 1966 at a teaching hospital in St. Louis, where gynecologist Masters (Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon) has built a reputation as the facility’s leading fertility specialist. Off the books, however, Masters has become obsessed with a sketchy side project, paying prostitutes to allow him to observe them, Peeping Tom style, at work with their clients. It’s not mere voyeurism that drives him, though.
“I simply want to answer the question, ‘What happens to the body during sex?,” he tells his skeptical provost, Barton Scully (Beau Bridges).
When Masters says that, we realize that he’s not just talking on a clinical level, because this man is emotionally detached from everyone around him, including his beautiful and adoring wife, Libby (newcomer Caitlin Fitzgerald, heartbreakingly good). Libby desperately wants a baby, since she senses that their marriage is missing something, which isn’t a tough call given that her husband doesn’t even unbutton his dress shirt while having brisk, passionless procreative sex with her. They’ve been doing this for months now, without success, and Bill is telling people it’s because Libby has biological issues that make it hard for her to conceive. A colleague, obstetrician Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto), knows the truth, though: Bill himself is very nearly sterile.
Ethan has drifted into an affair with Virginia “Ginny” Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), a twice-divorced former nightclub singer currently supporting herself and her two kids as a secretary at the hospital. A beautiful free spirit, Virginia has a very healthy appreciation of sex, although her life at present is so complicated that she can’t be more than “friends with benefits” with the besotted Ethan. It’s Ethan’s unrequited love for Virginia that puts her on the Bill’s radar, and he soon hires her as his secretary and covert colleague in his sex research.
Although they’ll have a tough row to hoe initially in terms of establishing what role Virginia, who is not a doctor, will play in the studies, Masters and Johnson are, at heart, a perfect match. He’s obsessed with compiling empirical data on human sexual response, while she understands intuitively that a person’s emotional life can has a powerful impact on his erotic experiences.
“Women often confuse sex with physical attraction,” Virginia tells Bill during her job interview. “They often think sex and love are the same thing, but they don’t have to be. They don’t even have to go together. Sex can be perfectly good on its own, whereas love is… .”
She leaves that sentence unfinished, because Virginia, unlike Bill, comprehends the value of something that can’t be quantified. Their disparate viewpoints lead to frequent clashes, but also to some of their most surprising discoveries. When Bill asks Virginia to describe what a woman experiences at the height of sexual gratification, she replies, “That’s like trying to describe salt to someone who never tasted salt.”
“I’ve tasted salt,” Bill responds.
“Not the way I’ve tasted salt,” Virginia says with a little smile.
Sheen, who played Tony Blair in a trilogy of films about British politics including the Oscar-winning The Queen, never cheats by trying to make the chilly Masters more sympathetic than he deserves (Sheen also is a producer on the show), giving a deceptively brilliant performance in this very difficult role. It’s Caplan, however – best known before now for her smart comedy work in such shows as the cult sitcom hit Party Down – who is the absolute revelation here. Her Ginny is sexy, funny, whip-smart and vulnerable, and she conveys all of that while doing most of the heavy lifting in the show’s fairly explicit sex scenes. Former Academy Award nominee John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) directed tonight’s premiere, and Allison Janney has an unforgettable guest appearance in a couple of future episodes as Bridges’ sexually frustrated wife, Margaret.
Masters of Sex is adult entertainment in the finest sense of the phrase. Send the kids to bed and check it out.