After a string of half-hours seemingly designed for niche tastes that sporadically merit the label “comedy,” HBO has its most fully realized and potentially commercial player within that genre in some time thanks to “Silicon Valley.” Co-created by Mike Judge (with the dryness of “King of the Hill” and tone of “Office Space”), it’s a savvy look at the birthing pains of a tech startup, filled with unforced humor and a serialized plot, in which the sad-sack characters find themselves caught between feuding billionaires. Similar but superior to Amazon’s “Betas,” it’s inordinately user-friendly compared to many recent pay-cable offerings.
The series won’t actually premiere until April (it’s getting a preview at the SXSW Festival), but piggybacking on the return of “Game of Thrones” should funnel a lot of men in its direction. And after viewing five of the eight episodes, there’s a lot to like, in a series with genuine laughs but – thanks in part to its a Comic-Con-like ratio of male to female characters – devoid of sex, other than a stripper who grouses about nerds’ lack of etiquette and obligatory references to online porn.
The series stars Thomas Middleditch – who perhaps unconsciously seems to be channeling a young Gene Wilder from “The Producers” – as Richard, a shy programmer who, while working at the fictional tech titan Hooli, has developed a music site with a compression algorithm that astounds the company’s snooty brass.
The innovation yields an instant bidding war between two eccentric billionaires, Hooli’s Gavin Belson (“Big Love’s” Matt Ross) and venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), the latter prone to dismissing college as a “cruel, expensive joke” and expressing outrage by saying, “This is displeasing.”
Once Richard makes a choice, however, that only unleashes more big-business brinkmanship, while forcing him into a managerial role – with help from an MBA type (“The Office’s” Zach Woods) – that strains relations between Richard and the fellow outcasts with whom he’s living: Even more shy pal Big Head (Josh Brener), programmers Dinesh and Gilfoyle (Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr, respectively), and the brash blowhard Erlich (T.J. Miller), who has staked him and, having sold his own small startup, claims 10% of anything Richard creates.
Judge (who conceived the show with John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, and directed the first four episodes) clearly knows these guys, down to the smallest quirks and eccentricities. Yet those qualities are exacerbated by injecting insane wealth into the equation, with Erlich telling the gang at one of those lavish if awkward Valley parties, “Kid Rock is the poorest person here, apart from you guys.”
What’s slightly unexpected, if welcome, is how well the show works on that level – a sort of latter-day “Weapons of Mass Distraction,” where billionaires play high-stakes chess without much thought to collateral damage, albeit with a near-absence of tact or social graces.
That geek chic has helped power CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” into a mega-hit, and the mix of youth, money and personal awkwardness has made the tech world a ripe template for comedy. Still, when one of the programmers notes how among Web developers “Inferior products win out all the time,” he could just as easily be talking about television – a description, happily, that doesn’t apply to this latest new-product rollout.