Anyone can get lucky once, but it’s that second winner – “Breaking Bad,” in AMC’s case, or Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” – that establishes a service as a genuine player. Amazon started promisingly with “Alpha House,” and moving along the Greek alphabet, follows up with “Betas,” a breezy look at twentysomethings trying to launch a Silicon Valley startup that, just to contextualize matters, would instantly qualify as one of MTV’s better scripted offerings. Set in a familiar nerd-chic setting – think “The Social Network,” with a touch of “The Big Bang Theory” – it’s aptly named, inasmuch as “Betas” earns a solid “B” or “B+.”
The premise has a nice serialized aspect to it, with two pals, Trey (Joe Dinicol) and Nash (Karan Soni), trying to create their own elaborate, social-media-informed online dating service, as they watch contemporaries mining for similar startup gold all around them. They receive negligible help from the nerdy Mitchell (Charlie Saxton), who quickly sets his sights on a girl at work, Mikki (Maya Erskine); and the older Hobbes (Jon Daly), a divorced slacker who orders a robot vagina for his personal amusement while fretting that being 35 is “like 95 in Valley years.”
Beginning with the pilot – written by Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard and directed by Michael Lehmann, with “King of the Hill” alums Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland as showrunners – “Betas” doesn’t swing for the fences, but rather lets the humor flow from its situations. In the premiere, Trey tries to engineer a meeting with legendary tech entrepreneur Murchison (Ed Begley Jr.) to secure vital funding, and it gives little away to say that the seed money sets the two on a journey that (in two additional episodes) includes grappling with bloggers, parents and budding relationships.
While “Big Bang Theory” and “Social Network” provide an obvious if much broader point of reference, thematically there’s a “2 Broke Girls” strain in the striving of the central duo as well, only here it’s more like “2 Brainy Guys,” albeit with flawed social skills. It helps enormously that Dinicol and Soni find the right mix of vulnerability and awkwardness in the leading roles.
The show also captures a general atmosphere of Silicon Valley as a youthful place not far removed from absorbing the Harry Potter books — where the best and brightest have migrated, indulging in geek pastimes while chasing career success. Noticing excitement in the office, for example, Mikki deadpans, “Did Hermione just turn 18?”
In demographic terms, “Betas” should skew considerably younger than “Alpha House,” though one suspects that at this point Amazon is pretty much just throwing stuff against the wall to see what, um, delivers.
Still, strictly as a creative proposition, when so many of these exercises end in dismal failure, the above-passing grades for “Betas” suggest the service’s incipient efforts have gone two for two. And frankly, for any startup, that’s a pretty impressive debut.