Tag Archives: The Office

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.’

Merchant of mirth

Nate Torrence, Stephen Merchant and Kevin Weisman (from left)
With his huge eyes and Cheshire Cat grin perched atop a gangly 6’7” frame, Stephen Merchant looks as if he just stepped out of a Wallace & Gromit short, but he’s best known for his frequent and very memorable collaborations with fellow Brit Ricky Gervais, including the original UK version of The Office, as well as such HBO series as Extras and Life’s Too Short.
Merchant’s finally flying solo, however, in Hello Ladies, a very funny new HBO sitcom premiering Sunday night. Very much in the laugh-while-you-cringe vein of Curb Your Enthusiasm and his collaborations with Gervais, this new comedy series – which Merchant co-wrote and directs – casts him as Stuart Pritchard, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Old Blighty. A web designer, Stuart lives very comfortably in a Southern California dream home that includes a guest house he rents out to his friend Jessica (Christine Woods), a neurotic out-of-work actress.
Stuart is lonely, though, and more to the point utterly baffled why he can’t seem to be embraced by L.A.’s beautiful people – or, as Stuart would put it, “L.A.’s OTHER beautiful people.” Like David Brent, the character Gervais played in The Office, Stuart is tragically un-self-aware. He struts with ill-advised confidence into the latest L.A. hotspot in search of the hottest babe in the room and, even on those rare occasion when he makes a tentative connection with one of them, he’s constantly casting his eyes around the place to make sure a hotter chick hasn’t wandered in.
His frequent companion is Wade (Nate Torrence), a schlubby co-worker who’s deeply in denial that his marriage of 11 years is cratering. Wade considers Stuart to be his best friend, but Stuart actually is there for Wade only when it’s convenient for him. Stuart is, in fact, something of a jerk, although Merchant smartly emphasizes the utter absurdity of this human scarecrow thinking he’s God’s gift to women. Even at his worst, Stuart is still a nicer guy than the third member of his social trio, Kives (a hilariously obnoxious Kevin Weisman, Alias), a wheelchair-bound dirtbag who uses his disability to score points with beautiful women.
Hello Ladies uses the Hall & Oates song “Alone Too Long” for its main theme, and that’s a recurring motif in the series. Stuart’s aggressive and incredibly inappropriate attempts to chat up potential girlfriends invariably go awry, and more often than not – OK, make that “always” – he winds up either alone at home eating a microwaved late-night snack in front of the TV or commiserating with the equally depressed Jessica.
This is Merchant’s first leading role in a comedy series (he had a recurring role as Gervais’ incredibly incompetent agent in Extras) and his performance hits all the right notes. HBO only sent out two episodes for preview, but they were strong enough to make me look forward to future half-hours.
On a semi-related note, Netflix recently started streaming Gervais’ most recent TV series project, a dramedy called Derek, in which Gervais takes the title role as a developmentally disabled 49-year-old man who works as a volunteer at the Broad Hill Residential Care Home for the Elderly.
The cause of Derek’s mental disability is left undefined, but he has the mind of a child, which makes him an ideal companion for the very senior citizens in the facility, where his kindnesses are much appreciated by Hannah (Kerry Godliman), the saint who runs the place for a criminally low salary, and Dougie (frequent Gervais cohort Karl Pilkington), the handyman and Derek’s landlord.
Before Derek premiered last year in Great Britain, Gervais came in for some criticism from people who feared the normally caustic comic would be making fun of disabled people, but I’ve watched all seven episodes in season one of Derek and it’s obvious Gervais is working on the side of the angels. When the show gets things right, as in one episode where we watch the elderly residents nodding off in their chairs and the screen changes to scenes from their youth in the form of grainy newsreels, Derek is a thing of beauty.
For me, though, this comedy-drama too often slides into mawkishness, especially in the season finale, in which Derek is reunited with the alcoholic father who abandoned him and his mother when Derek was a child. At times like that, the bathos is so overwhelming that I couldn’t help thinking that Gervais must be pulling our leg, especially with the show’s solo-piano musical soundtrack, which sounds like a Windham Hill sampler CD got stuck on autoplay.
If your tolerance for sentimentality is higher than mine – and frankly, it probably is – by all means check out Derek. If you can wade through the syrupy moments, you’ll be rewarded with one of the very few scripted TV shows anywhere that focuses on two segments of the human race – the disabled and the very elderly – that are virtually invisible elsewhere.
Ricky Gervais as Derek
Ricky Gervais as Derek