Viewed as a body of work, HBO's half-hour shows have felt kind of meandering and unfocused in the last few years. Some gems have emerged from the churn ("Looking," "Girls" and "Enlightened," for example), but the network has aired a lot of comedies that haven't run for very long or simply haven't made much of an impression. Recent offerings like "Doll and Em" and "Hello Ladies" were somewhat typical of this inconsistent, frequently tentative era. Those shows didn't feel like worthy, low-budget experiments that didn't quite make it, they came off as wispy, uninspired retreads of ideas executed better elsewhere.
So it's a relief that the fine new comedy "Silicon Valley" (10 p.m. ET Sunday, HBO) doesn't have substantial problems of conception or execution (with one exception, which I'll get to in a minute). It arrives fully formed and packed with smart observations that will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest technology, modern capitalism and geek culture.
Even if you don't care about those things, "Silicon Valley" works as a well-crafted ensemble comedy about a particularly eccentric workplace (we'd expect no less from Mike Judge, the creator of "Office Space"). It made me belly laugh more than once. As a fan of "Louie" and "Enlightened" and the like, I'm the last person to take a swipe at the more cerebral or experimental half-hour offerings on TV, but if you've longed for an HBO comedy that would actually make you laugh out loud, there's a good chance this show is it.
"Silicon Valley" mercilessly satirizes the excesses of a world it knows well, yet most of its characters aren't caricatures, and as any number of failures on various networks have demonstrated, that combination is very difficult to pull off. Yet this show does a capable job of skewering entire subcultures while quietly getting the viewer to invest in the alternately mundane and surreal lives of a motley bunch of aspiring tech dudes trying to scramble up the greasy Silicon Valley ladder.
The center of the show is a classic straight man: Richard (Thomas Middleditch) is a shy, introverted computer nerd who doesn't even know how valuable his compression algorithm could be. A lot of other people in Silicon Valley figure that out, and before long, they're swarming the panic-prone Richard like so many Vibram-shod sharks. At every step of Richard's journey from worker bee to potential titan, he is forced to ask himself how much of an asshole he wants (or needs) to be. This question makes him sick -- literally. Vomiting is one of the Richard's only coping strategies; clad in his unassuming hoodie, he's often bent over, about to hurl.
Erlich, the semi-rich guy who runs the tech-incubator/crash pad where Richard and his friends live, wants Richard to go full asshole, of course. He reminds Richard that lots of Mark Zuckerberg's friends have sued him along the way.
"How awesome is that!" Erlich enthuses.
Richard doesn't find it awesome, but he has to acquire a spine if he wants to negotiate the dangerous world of venture capitalists and casually cruel brogrammers. Erlich sees it as his mission to stiffen Richard's resolve and make their posse a ton of money, but the fact that Erlich thinks that peyote is a valuable problem-solver makes him a less than ideal business partner.
Like Michael Scott before him, Erlich often has half of a good idea but then it all goes terribly wrong (a sequence involving the company logo in Episode 5 is masterful in this regard). How one acquires or displays status -- one of the obsessions Erlich shares with the Valley's tech billionaires, real and fictional -- is a continuous source of barbs for "Silicon Valley." Richard's first employer in the Valley has a spiritual guru, a mansion in Jackson Hole and a hologram machine that cost him $20 million. He is also, despite his stated focus on New Age values and charitable goals, a total douchecanoe.
Richard's journey embodies the questions that animate much of "Silicon Valley": Do you want to become that guy? Or does getting rich slowly turn you into that kind of tin-eared, narcissistic jackass, no matter how much you resist the process?
Of course, it's entirely possible that some rich people were insane before they ever made a dime. That seems to be the case with Peter Gregory, a wealthy investor who is played with sublime timing and creepy charisma by the brilliant Christopher Evan Welch. It's hard to tell if it's simply painful for Peter to be alive, or if it's agonizing for him to visit the crude intellectual plane on which most of us live. Peter Gregory is my favorite new character on television, thanks not only to the show's nimble writing but to Welch's admirable commitment to making the guy not just a one-note joke but a uniquely intense, painfully uncomfortable enigma.*
There are two other performances that deserve special note: I've been waiting for actor and comic T.J. Miller to find the right vehicle for some time now, and he's sensational as Erlich, the doofy ringleader of one very dorky frat house. A show willing to go the easy route would have made Erlich an unlikable clown, and "Silicon Valley" goes close to the edge with the character without going over. A series of incisive discussions of his unconscious racism is like a subreddit or Popehat message board come to life -- those scenes have the same acid wit and defensiveness, but they're much more rigorous and concise.
(Another way in which "Silicon Valley" resembles certain online hangouts: The characters who get the most focus and screen time are male. That the show chooses to buy into the lazy stereotype that women aren't involved in tech -- or are only involved in tangential ways -- is one of the tangible letdowns of this eight-episode season).
Though Richard is the most innocent, almost everyone on the show is naive, blinkered or unable to negotiate some basic aspect of life. As the show's press kit puts it, sometimes "the most qualified to succeed are the least capable of handling success." The ways in which the dreams of Richard, Erlich and their friends Gilfoyle, Big Head and Dinesh come into collision with the brutal realities of commerce are played for laughs, but they also ground the show in a weird kind of idealism. Leaving Ehrlich's odd crash pad for some chilly tech-titan mansion, you realize, would probably be the worst possible outcome for Richard. It doesn't take long for him to realize that gaining the tech dream probably involves losing his soul and selling out his friends, but he also knows that if he gets off the Valley's caffeinated escalator, he might never get a chance to ride it again.
Completely detached from all this aspiration and angst is Martin Starr's Gilfoyle, who also gives a terrifically entertaining performance. I choose to believe Gilfoyle is Starr's "Party Down" character, Roman DeBeers, living under an assumed identity; he is basically Roman but with more tattoos and a pretentious devotion to Satanism (only Starr could say "Hail the Dark Lord" in a way that cracked me up so hard I had to pause the DVD player). Gilfoyle doesn't care about money: If the group struck pay dirt, he'd probably give most of his money to Anonymous (using Bitcoin, of course). Gilfoyle is just one of those people who likes living on the margins of the system, doing his own thing in his own way, and the attempts to make Richard's new venture succeed frighten him. "This is starting to seem like a job," he intones at one point. It's both a fact and a warning.
Starr's brilliant deadpan delivery is just the icing on a dense layer cake of satire, absurdity and cultural commentary. Like an app or a game that takes over your life, "Silicon Valley" ends up being pretty addictive.
"Silicon Valley" debuts 10 p.m. ET Sunday on HBO, after the Season 4 premiere of "Game of Thrones" at 9 p.m. ET and followed by the Season 3 premiere of "Veep" at 10:30 p.m. ET.
Ryan McGee and I talk "Silicon Valley," "Turn," "Veep," "Game of Thrones," "Inside Amy Schumer," the Peabody Awards and the "How I Met Your Mother" finale on this week's Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.
* Note: This information may constitute a spoiler for a potential second season of "Silicon Valley," so don't read on if you don't want to know. Welch passed away in December, which is enormously sad for any number of reasons.