Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nerd Culture: HBO’s Silicon Valley

T.J. Miller and Thomas Middleditch in Silicon Valley on HBO.

As I wrote in my most recent review for Critics at Large, it seems these days as though the nerds have won. In both economic and cultural terms, many occupations and enthusiasms that would once have been looked down upon, or at least greeted with incomprehension, are now both mainstream and quite lucrative. In the TV world, the result has been a wave of new(ish) shows that reflect their cultural dominance, from the rapidly multiplying horde of superhero shows to darker fare like USA’s Mr. Robot. By contrast, a show like The Big Bang Theory feels almost quaint in its depiction of its nerdy protagonists as social outcasts whose goofily eccentric interests and behavior are virtually incomprehensible to the nice, normal Americans who watch network sitcoms.

However, not many shows have attempted to tackle the economic side of the rise of nerd-dom, at least not before the appearance of HBO’s Silicon Valley, which is about to wrap up its third season. Co-created by Mike Judge (of Office Space and Beavis and Butt-head fame), John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky, it’s a remarkably funny and perceptive comedy that takes satiric aim at the industry that’s come to dominate so much of our daily lives.

The show follows the hapless Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his companions as they try to launch an Internet company called Pied Piper. Richard has (somewhat inadvertently) invented a brilliant new data compression algorithm with serious potential to change the way that people can save, store, and share their files. Pied Piper promises to make Richard and his friends billions of dollars – if they can ever get it off the ground. Their attempts to do so are not only frequently hilarious, but also often gut-wrenching, as they keep encountering one apparently insurmountable obstacle after another, from legal and financial troubles to problems with getting people to understand and use their software. I’m not sure I remember a TV program that achieved such a degree of white-knuckle narrative tension while still remaining an out-and-out comedy.

Judge and his fellow writers are adept at creating a believable yet warped take on the real-life Silicon Valley and its denizens. I’m consistently amazed at how they manage to draw both laughter and narrative suspense out of the practical details of writing software code and running a company. While Silicon Valley has been praised for the accuracy of its depiction of the tech industry, that’s almost beside the point. The real accomplishment is its ability to convincingly create – and skewer without mercy – a detailed milieu that’s reflective of how the technology business has affected the way that we live and do business.

The show benefits from its excellent ensemble, starting with Middleditch, who’s extraordinary. I hadn’t seen him do anything before this, but he’s apparently gained some renown as an improv comedian for his dark, bizarre humor. What I find so fascinating about his performance is the level of nuance that he imparts to the brilliant but irredeemably awkward and inarticulate Richard: you can see him react with befuddlement to every little shift in circumstance, and you squirm with him as he attempts (and usually fails) to translate what’s going on in his head into something approximating a coherent and convincing stream of words.

(from left) T.J. Miller, Zach Woods, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, and Thomas Middleditch in Silicon Valley.

Richard’s friends/coworkers at Pied Piper include the perpetually bickering Bertram Gilfoyle and Dinesh Chugtai (a delightfully deadpan Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani, respectively), as well as the pathetic but relentlessly optimistic Jared Dunn, played by Zach Woods, who’s another standout in the strong cast. They’re opposed by Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), the founder of Internet giant (and their former employer) Hooli. Ross’ character is the one that’s most clearly modeled on specific people in the tech industry, and the role is equal parts absurdity and malevolence.

There’s also Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), the rotund, pot-smoking, and supremely confident foil to Richard’s tense nervousness. Erlich’s owns the so-called “incubator” that spawned Piped Piper, which is really just a steadily deteriorating house that he bought with the proceeds from a deal early in his career, and which now has the vibe of off-campus college housing rather than a site of cutting-edge innovation. Miller has probably been the biggest breakout star from the cast, and it’s not hard to see why: he’s playing the sort of likable lout who often becomes an audience favorite. However, even though his character is less complex and more of a crowd-pleaser than a role like Richard, Miller manages to do some interesting things with Erlich, managing to somehow combine self-confident bombast with a stoner’s laid-back apathy. The latest season has seen Erlich’s irresponsibility catch up with him in dramatic fashion, landing him and would-be business partner Nelson Bighetti (Josh Brener) deep in debt, and both Miller and the writers have surprised me by giving him a hint of pathos that I would have thought impossible to achieve with that character.

Outside of Pied Piper proper, there’s a mixed bag of supporting characters. Due to unfortunate real-world circumstances, perhaps the most notable is the venture capitalist Peter Gregory, who had to be written off the show when actor Christopher Evan Welch died midway through the first season. Welch was good in the role, and you can guess at some of the shock and emotional turmoil that his death must have caused for the cast and crew, because his absence throws the second half of the first season off kilter, and it’s not until the Season 2 premiere that Judge & Co. manage to right the ship (by, among other things, coming up with a scene explaining Peter’s off-screen death that’s equal parts ridiculous and poignant). He’s been ably replaced by Suzanne Cryer as Laurie Bream, who takes over Peter’s firm after the character’s death. She’s assisted by Monica Hall, who’s played by the somewhat bland Amanda Crew.

It’s worth noting that the show’s drawn some criticism for depicting the world of Silicon Valley as an overwhelmingly white and male one, at least when it comes to the programmers who make the products on which the industry runs. However, I think this criticism (in addition to ignoring the unfortunate reality) misses the point: while the show doesn’t fall into the Big Bang Theory trap of treating expertise in science and computers as a strange, almost exotic, obsession or focusing so intently on (male and female) nerds’ clumsiness around the opposite sex, it also doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to mocking these characters for their social ineptitude and inability to see beyond the circumscribed boundaries of their fairly homogenous world. Perhaps the show’s greatest strength is that it makes us want to root for Richard and the rest of the Pied Piper team, even as we cringe almost every time that one of them opens their mouths. They’re accomplishing great things, but Judge, Altschler, and Krinsky never let us forget that they’re also deeply – and hilariously – flawed human beings. 

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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