Apr 7, 2014

Channel Surfing: Silicon Valley - "Minimum Viable Product"

Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
A particularly great subversive moment for Silicon Valley is not that it is Mike Judge's return to TV after the failed The Goode Family and one season of new Beavis and Butthead, but that its lead character is played by Thomas Middleditch. It almost feels like his character is an extension of his blink-and-you'll-miss-it role in The Wolf of Wall Street in which he gets fired for maintaining a clean work place. In a large sense, this character feels like the bitter result of that character, provided that he knew computer coding and moved to Silicon Valley to make software that would mess with the public. As the aptly placed use of Green Day's song "Minority" over the credits suggests, this is an attempt to skewer the creative people who make our computers work and become their own wolves of the industry.

Landing on HBO with a stellar cast of alternative comedians including Kumail Nanjiani, T.J. Miller, Martin Starr, and Josh Brener, the show at least has one of the more enviable comedic casts so far this year. Beginning at a party in which Kid Rock plays a show to a nearly disinterested, sparse crowd, the show begins where it will spend most of the episode: within the banter of these characters, who are equal parts economics and crassness. The world plants them as underdogs, though not in the traditional sense. They are smart and protagonist Richard (Middleditch) works for the highly successful company Hooli. 
The episode's biggest goal is to introduce the world in ways that on surface level feel like direct satire on The Social Network. Richard is dissatisfied with the rundown portions of the city, even if they are way better than any ghetto. Everyone pitches ideas and insults anything that sounds shorts of brilliant. To a large extent, that is Richard's motivation within the series as he spends it talking to various powerhouse employers about his software called Pied Piper, which will show how much of two differing songs are similar. The idea, at least suggested by a few characters, is pretty genius.
The supporting cast doesn't get much to do, but Richard is at least a compelling protagonist. In many scenes, his nerdy qualities benefit the performance. Never going for a hyperactive caricature, he manages to feel uncomfortable in the universe while also desiring to thrive. He may be the sanest character within the entire story, especially with a brilliant cameo by Andy Daly as a doctor with a very morose story about gunshot wounds. The other real standout is Miller as Erlich, who owns the incubator where Richard lives and demands 10% of his earnings. He doesn't do much, but his sarcastic wit and greediness are endearing trademarks that make him easily a likable dreamer.

As a whole, I think the show works largely because of the cast. In terms of pilot episodes, it is really compelling, but doesn't provide much of the penchant brilliance that Judge brings to his work. The supporting cast has a few fleeting moments to be funny, but in time I feel like they could evolve into something unique with fun chemistry. As it stands, Middleditch and Miller are definite standouts who, as foreseeable leads, will help the show. The episodes aren't as immediately funny as the first King of the Hill episode, but there are plenty of implicit moments of genius to be mined from here. Subtle traits allow the characters to seem both cynical, oblivious, and passionate. Judge's dedication to work place comedy and elevating it to art is something few have achieved so well repeatedly. I have faith in this because of Judge.
I do also appreciate that HBO has gotten into the idea of making shows with auteur tendencies. Last year saw Christopher Guest's debut into the medium with the unfortunately short-lived Family Tree. We even saw Cary Fukunaga with True Detective. It has allowed for singular voices to flourish in a model that has a lot of compelling elements, notably the cinematic quality of any given episode. Silicon Valley isn't likely to be held as one of the great comedy series on HBO, at least not this season provided it gets renewed, but it will be a delightful chance to see a master return to TV to produce something that is unfiltered and mixes the profane with the profound in exciting ways.
Even then, 2014 is looking to be a great year for comedy series, considering that Girls finished a strong season and Broad City gave plenty of memorable moments. I am also excited to see what Judge does with this series, as it feels like a slow burn in which the episodes will build to something worth investing in. I do worry that it may fall too much into strictly nerd humor and become yet another one of those misunderstood cult shows that the creator is known to make. As it stands, there are many moments in the premiere episode that are implicitly funny and others only work if you allow yourself to be taken in by the subversive strangeness of this universe.
I do plan to return to critique this series in a TV Retrospective column upon its season one completion. As for now, I do predict that it may be one of the favorite freshman series of the year, if just for a cast full of reliably funny names. With the Green Day song playing over the credits, I do get a sense that this show is about to rebel over the reverence of computer icons like Steve Jobs, but that doesn't matter. As long as the show manages to find what's great about the characters and how they work as a dynamic, the show is likely to thrive. Hopefully it will last, but with Family Tree proving that niche humor doesn't quite always work even on HBO, I will have to remain skeptical of the public's attention.

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