“There’s money flying all over Silicon Valley, but none of it ever seems to hit us.”
There’s a lot to like about HBO’s Silicon Valley, which debuted last year with a confident, clever freshman season that took merciless aim the tech capital of the U.S. My favorite thing about the show — besides hyper-specific jokes aimed at geeky targets like the many endings of “Mass Effect 3” — is that it portrays (and makes fun of) each aspect of the cutthroat tech industry, from the self-important, aggressively eccentric billionaires to the scrappy, proverbial guys in a garage.
Ok, so our main characters technically live and work in a start-up business incubator run by shaggy entrepreneur Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller). But a graffiti-ed garage door does play a major role in Ep. 5/“Signaling Risk,” so the spirit is the same. Richard Hendriks (Thomas Middleditch) is an awkward, ineffectual programmer struggling to stay in Erlich’s incubator. Along with jack of no-trades best friend Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti (Josh Brener), Richard also works at a massive internet company called Hooli. Eager to prove his worth, Richard shows the Pied Piper music app he’s working on to oddball venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) and to a pair of sneering “bro-grammers” at Hooli. Turns out Richard’s music app has a potentially game-changing compression algorithm that has both Gregory and Hooli CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) trying to snatch up Pied Piper.
By the end of the first episode/“Minimum Viable Product,” Richard has accepted a much smaller offer so that he can maintain control of the company instead of completely cashing in. The bitter losing bidder tries to reverse engineer Richard’s work and create a shiny copycat. As a result, Richard and his partners/incubator-mates — which include Pakistani introvert Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), misanthropic Satanist Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), and gawky, business savvy new addition Donald Jared Dunn (Zach Woods) — must work quickly to finish Pied Piper in time to present at TechCrunch: Disrupt, the annual conference where Pied Piper’s rival is set to debut its own knockoff.
Silicon Valley counts writer/director/producer duo Mike Judge (Office Space, Idiocracy, Beavis and Butthead) and Alec Berg (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld) among its creators, and the show improbably incorporates at least a little of all those previous comedies’ DNA to funny effect. In an effort to increase productivity, Jared gingerly floats the idea of (gasp!) cubicles and a system that encourages competition. (Dinesh and Gilfoyle rail against it…until they don’t.) The cast is also chock full of comics who clearly have the freedom to ad-lib. And while there’s plenty of talk about algorithms and Weissman Scores — a compression metric created for the show that might end up being adopted in real life — Silicon Valley is not above having a character paint multiple versions of an obscene mural, making one person projectile vomit on another, or having a major technological breakthrough center around a discussion about masturbation.
However, the show truly excels whenever it shows us how Silicon Valley is the “Hollywood of tech.” (As Judge calls it in a featurette on this Blu-ray set.) There’s a decent chance this is the only TV series that will feature cameos by Kid Rock, Flo Rida, and…Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. And just like every Tinseltown waiter and valet parker is not-so-secretly an actor eager to share their headshot, Silicon Valley is full of doctors and partygoers who are trying to get funding for their increasingly stupid-sounding apps. Not surprisingly, Silicon Valley has a lot of fun with over-the-top tech culture, which leads here to driverless/comically-narrow cars, an artificial island, and an inflated sense of self-importance. For these people, it’s not enough that they make buckets of money; they also have to tell themselves they’re “changing the world” or “making the world a better place.”
I wouldn’t say there’s a breakout among the Silicon Valley cast, although Miller’s pompous Steve Jobs-wannabe probably comes the closest. I also thoroughly enjoy Woods’ work; even within a group of nerdy programmers, he manages to make Jared tragically uncool. Then again, the show is a true ensemble that isn’t really designed to be carried by any one person. For example, Middleditch’s Richard — who looks like Seth Meyers with a bad haircut — is *supposed* to be toothless. (And the actor responds with a stammering, tentative performance that doesn’t always inspire us to root for nice-guy Richard.) Nanjiani and Starr spend most of their screen time bickering with each other, and the pair have a profane, prickly chemistry that’s fun to watch.
The eight-episode first season wraps up at the TechCrunch conference and successfully creates high drama out of file compression and Weissman Scores. (I studied journalism/English partly so I wouldn’t have to deal with this math/science-y stuff after high school.) The fact that the show made me laugh — and, more importantly, care — about this stuff is a testament to the brains and talent behind Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley: The Complete First Season is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 34 mbps. The show is set in perpetually sunny Palo Alto, which results in a clean, cheery, blemish-free image image that is very pleasing to look at. Fine detail is impressive, whether we’re looking at the fratty, somewhat grody incubator house or the Hooli offices and its explosions of color. (The latter is supposed to stand-in for any tech company, but seems to bear a particularly suspicious resemblance to Google.) Except for a bit of CGI wizardry during one of Erlich’s vision quests, this is a pretty straightforward HD presentation done exceedingly well.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is, like most comedy series, heavy on the dialogue. The subs do pipe in during any musical (usually hip-hop flavored) cue, and during any of the party scenes. The track also offers very good separation, with understated background noises (crowd noise, office chatter, chirping birds) in the rear and dialogue remaining firmly up front. Fidelity is terrific and dialogue clarity — the most important thing — is top-notch.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD. There are commentaries for all eight episodes, but the rest of the special features are available on Disc 2.
Audio Commentaries: The tracks feature Judge, Berg and every regular cast member. Each of them is amusing to listen to, though I’d especially recommend the pilot commentary (the incubator house belongs to sportscaster Roy Firestone in real life) and the season finale. Mostly, we learn which bits are improvised…and that these guys love to make fun of each other.
Making Silicon Valley: (12:32) Judge, an engineer by trade, talks about basing the show on his own Silicon Valley experiences during the 1980s. Cast members also chime in to talk about their characters, and we learn about some of the consultants who were brought in to help make the show authentic…
TechCrunch — Disrupt: (3:42)…speaking of those consultants, we meet the TechCrunch editor who advised the crew on how to recreate the annual conference for the season’s final act. This one is a brief featurette, but it’s interesting to know how meticulous the production design team is. (They used footage from the real-life conference, and reproduced everything from the ID badges to the trash cans.)
The Hacker Hostel: (6:18) Miller and the rest of the cast give us a quick tour of Pied Piper headquarters. Much good-natured ribbing (and a little HBO-plugging) ensue.
Silicon Valley: The Complete First Season features all eight episodes on two discs. Season 2 is set to premiere April 12, and it promises to give the Pied Piper guys — just a handful of the Silicon Valley geeks who seem poised to inherit the Earth — an entirely new set of challenges. “If you thought it was crazy getting to this point, you’re not going to believe what it turns into from here…but it’s going to be amazing.”