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.