The Bay Area's starring role in the zeitgeist was boosted again last night with the premiere of HBO's Silicon Valley, the second new HBO show this season to take place here. But unlike Looking, which took languorous, loving glancing at various pretty San Francisco tableaux in between telling its story, Silicon Valley is set an hour south of the city, where in the days before Google busses ambitious engineers and tech types of all stripes were forced to live lest they let an annoying commute cut into their coding time.
For those not familiar with the San Francisco Peninsula, let's start with a quick primer: Drive south out of San Francisco toward the airport, you pass through towns like Burlingame and San Mateo where many tech companies have begun to spread, and generally speaking you have left behind S.F.'s protected enclave of excellent food, leftist politics, and people who can pronounce the word Viognier. You enter the suburban world of corporate campuses that looks like a sunnier version of much of the rest of our country, except that just to the west, in the lush green hills that separate this little valley from the Pacific Ocean and shield it from the famous fog that ruins San Francisco summers, you have some of the toniest, most expensive suburbs in the nation. These are towns like Woodside, Los Altos, Atherton, and Hillsborough where tech wealth has moved in where there used to only be successful lawyers and the old-moneyed elite. In Palo Alto, where Silicon Valley takes place, you've got Stanford University and a land otherwise dominated by shopping centers, cul de sacs, and parking lots. Next door in Menlo Park you have the Facebook campus, and Oracle. Just to the south, near the Bay, you have the Googleplex in Mountain View. And south of there, more inland, you will find Apple's campus in Cupertino, which will eventually look like this.
For those who live and work primarily in San Francisco, driving down there is a minor nightmare akin to a dentist visit, and you only do it for business reasons, or because a rich friend is throwing a pool party in August.
Thus the culture of Silicon Valley becomes its own bubble, and that's pretty much what this show is about. Also, it's about how millions of dollars are flying around every day for things like algorithms.
We're introduced to our crew at the house party of a newly minted billionaire, likely located in one of the above named enclaves like Los Altos or Woodside, where Kid Rock is "the poorest person here," stuck on stage performing for a crowd of 20 people on their phones. There's Richard, our nervous, wide-eyed hero, played by Thomas Middleditch, who's working on a site called Pied Piper that would be able to identify copyright infringements in music; there's Erlich, played by bombastic comedian TJ Miller, who made some money in the past selling his company Aviato, and now operates an "incubator" in his house where he's providing a place to live for three other journeyman programmers like Richard; there's Big Head (Josh Brener); Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani, who you may recognize from Portlandia); and the mostly quiet Gilfoyle, played by Martin Starr (Freaks & Geeks) looking like a young, long-haired and bearded Steve Jobs.
These five guys are going to form the core of a startup that, well, starts up by the end of episode 1, and already I'm grateful for the quick pacing after the let's-take-a-half-hour-to-get-through-half-a-day-in-the-life-style of Looking.
Richard has a day job at Hooli, a vast, successful company that does god knows what (other amusing company names to crop up in Episode 1 include Zenzibyte, Immedibug, and BitFlenser), and one day he lets some brogrammers take a look at his Pied Piper project. In an obviously too easy but nonetheless convenient conceit, they take one look at it and realize that it contains a brilliant compression algorithm, the news of which quickly rises to Hooli CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) via one of his middlemen (the always brilliant, bright-eyed straight man Zach Woods). Belson offers him $600,000, then $3 million, then $4 million, then $10 million for it all within the space of two minutes. But Richard gets interrupted by a phone call from another tech luminary, Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch in what may have been his last role), who offers to invest in his company so he doesn't have to sell his idea right away. All this insanity sends Richard out the door vomiting, and headed to see a doctor because of a panic attack.
This, by the way, is the hilarious moment after Richard meets Peter Gregory, pitches him his idea, and Peter drives away after giving a TED talk about skipping college.
Richard, obviously, chooses the course of courage and decides to turn down the $10 million (which would have netted Erlich 10%, or $1 million, as head of the incubator), and instead take his friends along on this ride. And he's bringing along Zach Woods, thankfully, to do what he does best: Recite the dogmas of corporate culture, cut everyone down to size, and act incredibly earnest while doing so.
Mike Judge, who blessed the world with Office Space fifteen years ago, with Beavis & Butthead and King of the Hill before that, as well as the woefully underrated satire Idiocracy, has a well tuned ear for the absurd, and certainly the world of brogrammers, conference bike meetings, and multi-million-dollar lines of code is ripe for skewering.
Also, it's clear from the pilot that this cast of talented funnymen, with Judge's writing to work with, could take their Pied Piper brand well beyond the startup phase of Season 1, and we could watch them gleefully ride this bubble until, maybe, the real-life bubble finally pops.