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‘Silicon Valley’ Preview: HBO Finally Launches a Great New Comedy to Pair With ‘Veep’

‘Silicon Valley,’ which debuts Sunday night, is the rare sort of sitcom in which the situation is nearly as compelling as the comedy. Set in California’s start-up-engorged South Bay, the series casts a fond and satiric eye on the cradle of American digital exceptionalism.

This Sunday night, HBO will transport viewers to a strange and fantastic new world. Those willing to make the trip will be plunged headlong into a fractious landscape replete with its own impenetrable culture and overrun with the sort of codes — social and otherwise — that could take a lifetime to master. It’s a cutthroat place, populated by hackers, trolls, and all manner of foul-smelling beasts. Hygiene is optional, long hair and strange piercings abound. Women are either marginalized, ogled, or both. Great wealth comes at great cost. Great power, like malware, corrupts.

Silicon Valley, which debuts Sunday night after Game of Thrones ends, is the rare sort of sitcom in which the situation is nearly as compelling as the comedy. Set in California’s start-up-engorged South Bay, the series casts a fond and satiric eye on the cradle of American digital exceptionalism. The anodyne sprawl of office parks, corporate campuses, and ranch houses that stretches from Palo Alto to San Jose has been mined on the big screen for Machiavellian intrigue (The Social Network) and dumb laughs (The Internship), but until now nothing has quite captured its Keystone Kapitalist combination of the two. In Silicon Valley’s Silicon Valley, the guy at the liquor store is shopping a killer app and even the dude tagging a public wall knows to ask for stock options in exchange for selling out. It’s a region built on hilariously crisscrossing fault lines: the bankers sniffing around for innovations they don’t understand; the programmers who can hack your email but can’t make eye contact. Everything outside of the software and the hard profits it engenders seems wildly inefficient and borderline insane. But because the first two are the only things that matter, nobody ever bothers to reboot.

The person responsible for bringing Silicon Valley to life is Mike Judge, the brilliantly low-key master of hangnail humor. From Beavis and Butt-Head to the eternally perfect Office Space, no one alive is better at communicating the way the smallest indignities sting the most. Silicon Valley, cocreated with former King of the Hill writers John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, is less pessimistic than Office Space — it focuses on the guys who might hire and fire the Lumberghs of the world; the geniuses who design the TPS Report templates but never, ever have to fill them out — but is no less keenly observed. Our protagonist is Richard (Thomas Middleditch), a meek fumbler in a hoodie who, quite without realizing it, has created a potentially game-changing compression engine. (If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry. One of the best things about Silicon Valley is the way it shows the genuine excitement that fuels the things that fuel the things we actually care about, the way nerdgasms on one side of the country lead to unlimited kitten videos on the other.)

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HBO

Soon Richard’s baby is being batted around by competing billionaires. On one side is Gavin Belson (Big Love’s Matt Ross), a five-toed-shoe-clad bully who runs Hooli, a Google-like company/cult, and on the other is Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch; never better), an asocial savant who muses over Whoppers as if they were relics from an ancient, alien civilization. Belson is offering instant cash while Gregory promises long-term investment and guidance. Once he’s done puking up his supermarket ramen into a brightly colored Hooli recycling bin, Richard chooses the latter and begins the long, potentially catastrophic journey of turning his program into a company.

Silicon Valley nails the highly specific hierarchy of geekdom, the way the beta-bro programmers, with their machiattos and flip-flops, torment the humble coders, and the way living women flummox them all. (“Every party in Silicon Valley ends up like a Hasidic wedding,” observes one lowly striver while drinking liquid shrimp and watching Kid Rock pretend to pal around with the type of guy he’d be more likely to pants.) But these deeply funny observations are more than just cultural tourism. They’re also an accurate roadmap of the treacherous terrain Richard must navigate if he hopes to succeed. Middleditch, best (if barely) known for his brief turn as Dwight’s brother on the episode of The Office that was meant to be a spinoff, is just perfect in the part. He quivers in every scene with the sort of impotent ego that could either curdle into resentment or blossom into charisma. Middleditch is aided and abetted by a terrific supporting cast, including the razor-sharp Kumail Nanjiani (Portlandia) and Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks, Party Down) as Richard’s roommates, and Zach Woods (The Office) as a sycophantic refugee from Hooli. Stand-up T.J. Miller gets the lion’s share of the punch lines as Erlich Bachmann, a minor millionaire and the proprietor of the “incubator house” that Richard calls home — as such, he claims 10 percent of the nascent company as well as the right to act as the peacocking Steve Jobs to Richard’s more retiring Steve Wozniak. “You’re being a complete tool right now,” Erlich yells early on at the equivocating Richard. “I need you to be a complete asshole. Do you understand the difference? If you’re not an asshole, this company dies!”

In true right-brain fashion, the first half of the eight-episode first season dives smartly into the minutiae of empire building: choosing a name, apportioning shares, buying — and then returning — a margarita machine. The vibe is light, the pace is engaging. Silicon Valley is uproariously funny at times but it’s also consistently fascinating in a way many bro-y, aspirational cable half-hours are not. (With the equally terrific Veep following it, HBO suddenly has the best hour of comedy on TV.) This is because, at heart, Judge is no Turtle. One of the hallmarks of his work is the way he imparts a stubborn dignity to all of his protagonists, animated and otherwise. Hidden among the dick jokes and mushroom trips is an entrepreneurial enthusiasm for the underdog that is downright infectious. In Silicon Valley, money can buy you access to cool things like hologram tubes and girlfriends even as it’s powerless to transform who people truly are. Judge’s soon-to-be-rich heroes may be pinballs, but at least they’re not the machine.