HBO's Silicon Valley: How Satire Became Celebration

In the late eighties, on the heels of a move from San Diego to Silicon Valley, Mike Judge began a brief tenure as an office worker. Befitting pre-dotcom-boom niche tech companies, his employers’ names were beige and abstract: Support Systems Associates Incorporated, Parallax Graphics. Steeped in tedium and company-wide ennui, Judge soon began to grow weary; he quit in a matter of months.

Detail-oriented disdain for office drudgery is among Judge’s signatures—and much of what’s endeared him to viewers. 1999’s Office Space, for instance, offers a cathartic revenge tale against the managerial class of corporate office and chain restaurant alike; the heavily-memed cult film, naturally, was informed by Judge’s own numb-natured jobs. Thus, when the news broke a handful of years ago that Judge would transpose his trademark American-workplace satire onto California’s tech industry in HBO’s Silicon Valley, it seemed a salve for a public baffled, irked, and wounded by tech capitalism.

Yet Silicon Valley hasn’t proven itself a sendup so much as a celebration. Analyzing this warrants a look at the show’s treatment of its central file-compression business, Pied Piper. Much of the series’s conflict revolves around the vicissitudes of the company: petty grievances, corporate competition, legal threats. For any sitcom, conflict is necessary, and the means by which it’s achieved shouldn’t be surprising on a show about techies. The problem, however, lies in asking the viewer to sympathize with Pied Piper’s creators—nebbish small-business owners doing the best they can in a rapid-pace industry—and cheer them on in their quest to become Silicon Valley royalty. Their creation of a for-profit endeavor isn’t perpetuating the noxious industry of Silicon Valley; it’s just making it more exciting.

The show is, of course, derisive, but its targets are strictly limited. Much of the series’s humor derives from isolated cultural mores of Silicon Valley, wherein characters engage in absurdities ripped from the headlines of Forbes and TechCrunch. Some are subtle foibles: Protagonist Richard Hendricks, played by Thomas Middleditch, invokes engineer stereotypes, struggling to interact with women and obsessing at Seinfeldian levels over the use of tabs versus spaces when writing code. Others, meanwhile, rank far more outré: In a scene from season four, Gavin Belson, a senior executive at tech behemoth Hooli, receives a blood transfusion from a buff and spritely blond named Bryce, channeling the real-life supervillainy of paranoid surveillance ghoul Peter Thiel.

These cultural jabs aren’t problematic in their own right. Belson’s blood transfusions, for example, nod to a much deeper, more avaricious tech-billionaire pathology that commands parsing, and have the potential to open the series to more incisive tacks. Yet that nod has so far proven just a nod; little more than a sight gag, it fails to ask or explore, say, why Belson is privy to this form of cryptic, extravagant healthcare. Indeed, the show rarely, if ever, offers critiques through an economic lens—a glaring blindspot for a parody of the profoundly wealth-disparate Silicon Valley—portraying the tech-executive class not as miserly purveyors of inequity on a local and global scale, but as quirk-riddled, even likeable, eccentrics.

In lieu of criticizing the industry for its economic impact, Silicon Valley, in fact, manages to extol it. In a season-two episode, the central characters begin to illegally set up servers from their home in the exorbitant city of Palo Alto; when their curmudgeonly neighbor threatens to report them to the city, Richard and Erlich Bachman—Richard’s roommate, landlord, and startup “incubator,” played by T.J. Miller—confront him. Bachman declares:

“You’re always going on and on about how this is such a good neighborhood. Do you know why it’s such a good neighborhood? Do you know why your shitty house is worth twenty times what you paid for it in the 1970s? Because of people like us moving in and starting illegal businesses in our garages. All the best companies—Apple, Google, Hewlett Packard, even Aviato—all of them were started in unzoned garages. That is why Silicon Valley is one of the hottest neighborhoods in the world. Because of people like us. Not because of people like you.”

It’s fair to chalk this up to character development. The now-departed Bachman is the show’s megalomaniacal-tech-bro locus: a faded startup founder who sold out for a few million, his reverence of Steve Jobs informing his brash pomposity and wardrobe. Here, however, Bachman isn’t the butt of the joke; he’s the underdog. Audiences aren’t nudged to laugh at his oblivion to his own role in the housing crisis that’s forced people into living in garages and evicted them from their RV communities. Instead, Bachman’s triumphant monologue positions him as someone to root for, a scrappy, young innovator challenging the vaulting regulatory forces that would dare to slow him down.

The tone of such a scene becomes eminently clearer in the context of Judge’s politics. Though he’s been cagey about his leanings, Judge’s tendency toward free-market libertarianism—an ideology synonymous with Silicon Valley—is blatant. IFC once crowned him a “conservative hero.” In 2013, he revealed to Alex Jones’s InfoWars that he’d become “interested in smaller government kind of thinking.” The following year, he told The Guardian:

“One of my best friend’s nephews is a programmer at Google and I don’t see anything wrong with a nice shuttle bus taking him to work. Everyone wants their cellphones to work better and their internet to go faster, and to do that you have to find the best people and pay them a lot.”

Judge has also opined that there’s nothing inherently wrong with capitalism. “Some people are making the world a better place, some maybe aren't, but it's just funny that most of it, it's just capitalism,” he told NPR. “They're trying to make their companies as big and profitable as possible, which is fine, but it's always shrouded in this ‘We're making the world a better place’ stuff.” The problem with Silicon Valley, according to Judge, isn’t that it’s a perpetual-greed machine, but that it’s just gotten a little too goofy.

This affectionate take on Silicon Valley pervades the show—and its actors are proof. Several, in fact, are versions of the people they were hired to lampoon. Middleditch is a Verizon spokesperson and nascent venture capitalist; in a Bloomberg interview, he revealed, apparently without a hint of irony, that working on the series has taught him “there’s a lot of money” in Silicon Valley and lauded “the innovation and altruism in Silicon Valley.” Miller, who recently left the show, has mirrored much of the abusive behavior of tech’s most reviled figures, attacking a member of one of tech’s most exploited underclasses—Uber drivers—and committing sexual assault. Kumail Nanjiani, who plays software engineer Dinesh Chugtai, has found renown as the #Resistance’s conscious-capitalist moral compass, echoing cries from contrite former tech executives who’ve suddenly realized that Silicon Valley might be a bit troublesome. (He’ll still champion those Verizon ads, though.)

If the show’s cast is telling, so too are its guest appearances. In its four complete seasons, Silicon Valley has featured, to name a few, Kara Swisher, co-founder of Vox-owned tech news site Recode and one of tech PR’s most prominent faces; Snap, Inc. co-founder Evan Spiegel; Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, Olympians and venture capitalists famous for suing Mark Zuckerberg for intellectual-property theft; and Google executive Eric Schmidt. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley has been granted permission from TechCrunch to use the name of its famed annual conference, TechCrunch Disrupt, and Judge has expressed interest in cameos from Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk.

The cast and creators of Silicon Valley, then, have no fundamental qualms with the world they ridicule, and when they do ridicule it, its worst offenders are in on the joke. This begs the question: What’s the point? The underlying issue of Silicon Valley—the one that can explain Thiel’s transfusions and the impossible cost of living—is, of course, that the tech industry continues to be one of capitalism’s fastest-growing vehicles, its cash-drunk founders following Randian routes to the top of the economic hierarchy. Yet, if a small group of objectivist business owners are accumulating wealth to everyone else’s detriment, why would a satire be so toothless as to softly elbow them for their silly idiosyncrasies, giving them free tongue-in-cheek publicity in the meantime?

Another season of the show recently premiered, promising a new onslaught of corporate travails and awkward-engineer one-liners. This isn’t to say the story won’t be compelling or the jokes won’t be funny; Silicon Valley serves, if nothing else, a TV show’s paramount purpose of entertainment. But, as a corporate vehicle itself, that entertainment is bound to the strictures and whims of actor-investors, tech companies, and potential guest stars. It’s probably safe to assume that this particular satire, if that’s how it can be categorized, will continue to fall in line, throwing pokes instead of punches. Then, maybe, Zuckerberg will agree to that cameo.

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Julianne Tveten