Dude Code: What to Make of the ‘Silicon Valley’ Finale
Last night, HBO’s Silicon Valley closed out its first season with the conclusion of a two-episode arc about the annual TechCrunch Disrupt conference. While the first half of the finale had some of the show’s strongest stuff all season, including a tour de force hand job–themed brainstorm, the actual presentation and last-second breakthrough were more predictable and fell flat. The Pied Piper app arc has been the least compelling part of the show all season, and the final episode was a summation of the whole season’s main issue: The scenes showing a bunch of guys sitting around bullshitting are more interesting than the scenes in which they do the actual work. When convincing friends to give Silicon Valley a shot, I always find myself calling it “conversational.” It might just be personal; I always preferred the music video–watching segments of Beavis and Butt-Head to the actual plotlines. Maybe I just like watching people dick around, and Mike Judge is an expert at depicting how fun it can be to just dick around.
Judge’s interest in the weirdness of suburban normalcy sprouted with Beavis and Butt-Head and flowered into maturity with King of the Hill. His career-long exploration of the life cycle of the American suburban white male is neither condescending nor overly sentimental. With movies Office Space, Idiocracy, and the underrated Extract, Judge has made it his project to map the absurdity of the mundane world. In Silicon Valley he has an ideal new field: the Gold Rush sweeping California, where young companies stuffed with young hopefuls vie to be the next overnight success story. The show fits on HBO’s Sunday night with Game of Thrones and Veep; all three shows involve elaborate codes that you pick up through context.
Like a lot of cable television, Silicon Valley is very interested in the paradoxes of being male. But unlike the dramas that focus on difficult men who are violently masculine, Silicon Valley depicts a different strain: NERDS! The programmers themselves are still underdogs and underlings. They’re nerds, but not toxic nerds like The Social Network’s version of Mark Zuckerberg. They’re not macho, but they’re also not resentful of macho types, at least not outwardly. Main character Richard Hendriks (played by stand-up comedian Thomas Middleditch) is an introvert with the chronic inability to express himself through any language other than code. He shakes like a nervous dog in most situations. Hendriks is surrounded by guys who are great at talking endlessly: Erlich (T.J. Miller), Bertram (Martin Starr), and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani). Zach Woods’s recurring character, Jared, is the Shoshanna; he gets the broadest plots and some of the best lines. The two rival tech billionaires played by Matt Ross (Gavin Belson; the Magneto) and Christopher Evan Welch (Peter Gregory; the Professor X) have also been a highlight. The passing of breakout star Welch, a lifelong character actor who embodies Gregory with precise eccentric detail, is a tragedy.
Silicon Valley takes an optimistic view of nerdy nice guys, depicting them as guys who are seriously just very nice. It’s sympathetic to men who possess qualities that are stereotypically defined as feminine. (Judge’s progressive views about dudehood were sealed when he gave us all Bobby Hill.) Probably none of the Silicon Valley guys could win a physical fight, although it’s very possible that Erlich might have drunk super-strength. Richard in particular is frail and anxious, vomiting whenever he encounters stress. In Silicon Valley’s optimistic view, the guys aren’t ashamed about being girly men, although the right word might be “resigned.” The men of SV’s incubator house don’t fit in with the Valley’s brogrammer culture at large, which is good because that culture is horrible. There are a lot of dick jokes, but without the air of homophobia that often comes with dick jokes. The show’s most poisonous indictments are of executives and power-douches like the one played by Ben Feldman (Mad Men’s Ginsberg). The show is about the current tech bubble, but it could just as easily be about the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, the inanity of which Judge also has had experience dealing with. Silicon Valley skewers the levels of delusion people must have to pursue their creative dreams, but it’s still a fantasy. The first season ends on a victorious note, but the success of Pied Piper was never in doubt. It was destined to prevail, just like Vincent Chase or Crisp Denim.
Silicon Valley reflects the real demographics of Silicon Valley; it’s mostly white and almost totally male. The show’s lone female character, Monica, is a type-A assistant who is unfortunately pretty boring. She feels like she wandered in from Entourage. Her potential romance with Richard and belief in his app feel a little bit deus ex machinima. There are female programmers in the background of Silicon Valley, but none in the foreground yet. Maybe including a token female in the gang would be unrealistic. Google just disclosed that its employees are not as diverse as the company’s progressive image might imply; the breakdown shows that its workforce is overwhelmingly white and male. One of the most depressing things about the latest tech revolution has been watching familiar power dynamics reproduce themselves in a supposedly entirely new environment. There’s a whole other show to be made about what it’s like being a Peggy Olson in tech, but it’s not crazy to think these guys would occasionally encounter some nerdy female coders who are not booth babes. All I’m saying is I would be down to watch comedian Charlyne Yi improvise app ideas forever.
Silicon Valley’s most traditional aspects are its weakest, while the show’s most gonzo moments make the biggest impressions: the freight ship, the Satanic baptism, Erlich’s vision quest, the deployment of Kid Rock. It’s been a great first season, and the show’s sophomore year will determine the direction it takes, whether it follows the typical aspirational template or takes a detour into darkness and failure. James Surowiecki recently wrote in The New Yorker about how the Silicon Valley idea of “Fail fast, fail often” is wishful thinking, because “evidence suggests that past failure really just predicts future failure.” Will success spoil Silicon Valley? I imagine it will only make our heroes even more neurotic. While they may be about to be flush, there’s always a chance it’ll all disappear in a glitch.