Why Season One Of Silicon Valley Was A Huge Disappointment
Mike Judge's tech industry satire forgot to be a satire.
Spoiler alert: this article deals with the entire first season of Silicon Valley, whose finale just aired in the USA.
Because broadcasting on the same night as Game of Thrones is the timeslot of death, it’s been easy to miss the new HBO series Silicon Valley — but after wrapping up its first season yesterday, there are a few things we need to talk about.
It’s been called Girls for geeks and Entourage for tech nerds, and was boosted by writer/director Mike Judge, known for his work on Office Space, Beavis and Butthead and Saturday Night Live. Described as a satirical take on the tech industry, Silicon Valley was set up as the better, cooler, smarter answer to CBS’s The Big Bang Theory. Considering that the world now has an entire generation of digital natives, it seems absurd that it took so long for a show like this to take off — but while HBO’s new series sought to satirise the tech industry, it ultimately only reinforces its problems.
Silicon Valley follows neurotic young programmer Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) after he turns down a $10 million deal from Google-esque tech giant Hooli for his audio compression algorithm. He instead launches his own start-up called Pied Piper with a wacky bunch of mates: Erlich (TJ Miller), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr from Freaks and Geeks). The series traces Richard’s journey from bumbling coder to serious competitor at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference.
The Trifecta Of Fail: Women, Homosexuals, Racial Minorities
The tech industry’s infamous lack of women and open hostility towards women should have provided easy pickings for Judge to write a smart show with good politics. And yet, there are no lead women characters on Silicon Valley. The only recurring female character, beautiful (of course) and personable Monica, is an assistant to a socially-inept male executive, and in the finale — spoilers — she is set up as a trophy love interest for Richard, despite the two characters never really expressing attraction to each other before now. (… Because that’s not all what happened in The Big Bang Theory or anything, either.)
The remaining peripheral women characters are all stereotypes: the pink-clad blonde at the cupcake app stall who can’t code; the black stripper called Mochaccino (I’ll get to the race stuff soon); Gilfoyle’s one-episode girlfriend, whose only plot function is to be a woman the other guys lose their shit over; the high school friend who thinks Richard is obsessed with her (thus making him obsessed with her); and the wive(s) that Erlich sleeps with.
In the third episode of the season there is a reference to an article written about Pied Piper by real life tech journalist Kara Swisher, and Swisher even makes a small cameo in the finale. But that’s where the attempts at writing women stop, and the dick jokes keep going. The Big Bang Theory is routinely mocked for its predictable sexist and racist humour, but it actually has better representation of women than Silicon Valley, with three recurring women characters to SV’s one. That’s saying something.
It’s not like Judge is unaware that tech has a bad rep when it comes to women. In two separate episodes, the characters directly address women’s under-representation: Monica warns the guys that TechCrunch is a “vortex of distraction” with women making up only 15% of attendees, to which Gilfoyle, awed, replies, “it’s a meat market”; and then there’s the party thrown by Pied Piper-backer Peter Gregory, in which he resorts to hiring actresses to play women guests. It’s baffling, really, that a series can at once be so aware of inequality, and yet continue to do nothing about it.
Similarly, there is a juvenile homophobic undercurrent. Gilfoyle mocks Dinesh as “code gay” for being attracted to his Java coding (he thought the cupcake girl wrote it, LOL) — because gay is gross, right? Later, when Richard refers to his male business “partner”, his high school friend misinterprets it as a romantic-sexual partner. Luckily, that was all a big mistake; with no gay characters at all, the show would probably implode if there was actual gay action. Even the pretty-clever running hand-job joke in the finale (how many guys would Erlich need to jerk off at once in order to jerk off the entire audience at TechCrunch in ten minutes? Trust me, it’s important) rests on the notion that a group of men who definitely aren’t gay are talking about like really gay shit.
Making sure it meets the representation-fail trifecta, Silicon Valley has taken the traditional, token approach to racial diversity (if it isn’t blaringly obvious from the show’s promo image). Much like The Big Bang Theory, the characters are all white except for the token brown guy. Dinesh is actually one of the wittiest and most likeable characters, but Silicon Valley goes the extra mile to ruin everything by including a recurring minor Chinese character (played by comedian Jimmy Ouyang), who speaks confused, incomprehensible English and contributes absolutely nothing to the plot. Jian Yang (I had to look up the character’s name on IMDb because of how minor he is) is perhaps the grossest stereotype throughout the series, appearing only to speak seemingly random statements — “Yes, I eat the fish” — that apparently function as punchlines.
What Is Satire, Anyway?
The thing about making a satirical television show is that it needs to actually satirise something.
It’s not enough for a program that sets itself up as satire to simply mirror the word’s problems. Realistic it might be; satirical it isn’t. There needs to be an element of subversion and judgement on the status quo. There needs to be critique. As it stands, Silicon Valley is essentially endorsing the lack of gender and racial diversity that inhabits the tech world.
It’s especially frustrating because there are so many ways Silicon Valley could use tech’s weaknesses as its strengths. There could have been a female executive to go up against rival Peter Gregory, and she could have had a male assistant to rival Monica. Hooli could have boasted an overtly diverse hiring policy that makes the Pied Piper crew self-consciously question their ethics. The cupcake woman at TechCrunch could have been feigning not to know code in order to sabotage Pied Piper’s presentation (that’s actually where I thought that subplot was going – but no, she was a ditzy blonde who does social media). And most obviously, and at the bare minimum, one of the Pied Piper staff could have been a woman.
What Silicon Valley Gets Right
Its failures are very real, but Silicon Valley does have some genuinely funny moments. I love that the tech never seems to work when it should (Peter Gregory’s driverless car; Hooli’s holographic communicator); the overzealous pitches about changing the world (“because if we can make your audio and video files smaller, we can make cancer smaller”); Erlich’s obsession with Steve Jobsian, over-the-top presentation techniques, and Peter Gregory’s unwavering eccentricity.
But is it enough?
Ultimately Silicon Valley is going to have to lift its game in season two or face alienating viewers further. Sure, it’s not the first show to feature a cast of predominantly straight white males (the ‘Entourage for tech nerds’ label seems pretty apt), but it’s going to be tough for it to compete as a smart and cool series with such regressive representation, predictable tropes, and bottom-of-the-barrel jokes. And frankly, I’m over shows that don’t even bother to write diverse characters. Aim higher and be smarter – surely that’s what the tech industry aspires to do.
Silicon Valley airs on Foxtel’s The Comedy Channel, on Wednesdays at 8.30pm.
Jessica Alice is the co-director of the National Young Writer’s Festival. She is the poetry and short prose editor of The Lifted Brow and poetry editor of Scum.