Inside the Incubator

Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley is satire, but feels like a documentary.

Thomas Middleditch and Josh Brener.
Thomas Middleditch and Josh Brener in Silicon Valley.

Courtesy of Jaimie Trueblood

Mike Judge’s sharp, very funny new HBO comedy Silicon Valley, about the absurdities of startup culture, feels like a satire. But as Judge, the man who made Beavis and Butt-head and Office Space, put it in a recent interview, “You can’t call it satire when you are showing it like it is.” Rarely has a show had to do so little to find so much to mock. The series opens with a group of nerdy techies attending the massive soiree of a newly minted multimillionaire. Kid Rock performs as no one listens, and then the host climbs onstage and shrieks, “We’re making the world a better place … through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility.”* Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, agreed to appear in this scene because, he said, “I’ve been to that party.”

A venture capitalist believes that higher education is a scam and pledges to give $100,000 to young people who forgo college to begin startups. Millions of dollars are thrown at kids in T-shirts who have never heard of a business plan. Enormous tech companies feed twentysomethings cereal and paper them with slogans about doing good. CEOs hire spiritual gurus. Guys develop apps alerting them to the location of nipples. Billionaires fancy themselves disruptors and innovators and world-improvers, all the while maintaining the larger status quo: White guys making all the money and sneering at anyone who has not availed themselves of the “meritocracy.” Silicon Valley exactingly, hilariously skewers all of this—and all of this is, more or less, really happening.

Thomas Middleditch stars as Richard Hendricks, an introverted programmer who spends his days working at Hooli, a massive tech company akin to Google, where slogans like It takes change to make change and No fear, no failure are festooned about. Richard lives in a “tech incubator” with three other nerds (Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, and Josh Brener, the first two working a great, sour rapport) that is overseen by the mesmerizing galoot Erlich Bachman (T.J Miller). Erlich is a buffoonish know-it-all with occasional flashes of real insight and absurd facial hair who once sold a startup called Aviato, which he insists on pronouncing with something like a fake Spanish accent.

Richard is developing a mediocre music app called Pied Piper that contains, unbeknownst to him, even though he built it, a stellar file compression algorithm. He finds himself caught in a bidding war between Hooli’s CEO and the oddball angel investor Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), whom Richard met at a TED Talk where Peter was decrying college. (“Go work at Burger King, go into the woods and forage for nuts and berries, do not go back to college.”) Richard becomes the CEO of a buzzy, brand-new, potentially billion-dollar tech company, even though he has to look up “business plan” on Wikipedia and has no idea what his company is or does.

Richard and his friends are naïfs, sympathetic near-losers with their noses pressed up against the opulence around them, who recognize its excess and absurdity—and still want in. “I’d like for this company to just be different from Hooli and Goolybib and all the rest,” Richard toasts his friends after the official start of Pied Piper. “Let’s not turn it into a corporate cult with voluntary retreats that are actually mandatory and claiming to make the world a better place all the time. Let’s just think different,” he says, stumbling on Apple’s slogan. “Let’s just do it,” he tries, landing on Nike’s instead. Richard finally settles on “Let’s make it happen,” but the point is made: Richard and his friends are already so immersed in corporatespeak and groupthink, declaring freedom is almost impossible.

Richard is a decent guy, but everyone around him seems to believe decent and successful don’t go together, that visionaries must be single-minded alpha males. Jared (The Office’s Zach Woods) quits Hooli to work for Pied Piper and doesn’t sleep or pee until he gets Richard’s permission. “I like angry people,” he compliments Richard. “Being around angry people relaxes me. I know where I stand.” After Richard gets a dressing down from Peter, Erlich warns him, “If you are not an asshole, it creates an asshole vacuum, and that void is filled by other assholes. … If you’re not an asshole, this company dies.”

Deep down, Richard does seem to have a certain capacity for assholishness. “For thousands of years, guys like us have gotten the shit kicked out of us, but now for the first time we are living in an era when we can be in charge, build empires, we can be the Vikings of our day,” he says, a funny enough punch line that it covers up Richard’s skewed perspective on his own privilege. But Silicon Valley is more self-aware than its protagonist; it is knowing about the tech world’s gender imbalance, for instance, due to which women are coveted, but not so much as colleagues. (When a good-looking woman tries to speak to the guys at the party, it turns out she’s just working. She has a startup: It involves being interested in guests at parties.) There is one major female character on the show—Monica (Amanda Crew), Peter Gregory’s employee, and Richard and Pied Piper’s point person—and some reviews have lamented that there aren’t more. But this is a case of art imitating life: Tech has a well-documented diversity problem. Silicon Valley, out to ridicule every aspect of its subject, shouldn’t minimize it just because Hollywood has well-documented diversity problems all its own.

And yet for all of its bite, it’s easy to imagine that Silicon Valley will be loved by Silicon Valley, not just for the copious in-jokes and attention to detail, but for the way it further announces Silicon Valley’s relatively new hold on the American imagination. Forget Wall Street and Hollywood, where white guys used to go to make their fortunes and get laid by women way hotter than them; masters of the universe are minted Palo Alto-adjacent now, and here’s a whole HBO show to prove it. If the show is even partially right about the hubris and self-regard that keep Silicon Valley afloat, there’s too much hot air up there for even a great, puncturing TV show to let it all out.

*Correction, April 4, 2014: This article originally misstated what nonsensical buzzword a character in HBO’s Silicon Valley is constructing elegant hierarchies for. It is for maximum code reuse and extensibility, not maximum code reuse and ostensibility. (Return.)