Jun 1, 2014

Silicon Valley: Season One

By Josh Oakley


There’s an extended joke in the finale of Silicon Valley. If you’ve seen the episode, you surely know the one. It’s a funny centerpiece for the episode, and a perfect, uh, climax for the season as a whole. The Apatowian crudeness meshes with the authentic knowledge of the tech world, and satire is gloriously supported by dick jokes. It’s a play on a move Futurama often perfected: combine the silly with the smart. Also like that show, the math apparently checks out. It’s just a shame, then, that this moment didn’t come sooner.

The first season of Silicon Valley followed a team of programmers after one of them discovers that he’s accidentally created the most impressive compression algorithm in computing history. Throughout, he encounters obstacles that seem reasonable even if a non-tech savvy person like myself didn’t always understand them. The show was able, often enough, to make clear the purpose of the weekly plots, even if it (wisely) let the intricacies remain complex. The problem, then, is that the detailed spoof of the tech world and the bro-culture send-up of the main characters’ interactions didn’t always run smoothly together.

The broad was best encapsulated by TJ Miller’s performance as Erlich Bachman, the owner of the house where the characters reside, and part-owner of Pied Piper. Miller is a gifted comedic talent, but his tendency to play up every line doesn’t always work with the material around him. That’s not his fault here at all; it’s clear through the writing that the intention is to have him be the polar opposite of Richard Hendriks (Thomas Middleditch, expertly playing the straight man role). No, the problem is in that writing, where the quiet and the loud are too often thrown in the same space, for a mood that can become repetitive after a while. So much of the show seemed to be unfocused set-pieces that were largely hit (Jared’s car troubles) or miss (the Satanic ceremony). Silicon Valley assembled one of the great casts of modern sitcoms, but it didn’t always know how to utilize their varying tones.

Mike Judge is often a master, having one of the best TV shows (King of the Hill) and films (Office Space) of the last twenty years, as well as many other great efforts. And his fingerprint is clear here; Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) feels lifted from Hill or Beavis & Butt-head, and Ross mostly knows how to hit those beats. But this falls somewhere between the sublime of Judge’s best work and his bland miss Extract. The central conflict feels shoe-horned in, and Judge’s most vital material comes from more defined clashing of ideals than Erlich and Richard’s provides. Their relationship is so close to something great, but it's off. Sometimes their banter feels grounded in some sort of reality, which is necessary in even the most cartoonish of worlds. But too often, subtler moments butt heads with ridiculous, unfunny stories that grow monotonous.

Unfortunately, the death of Christopher Evan Welch took a monumental piece of what made Silicon Valley work. His performance as Peter Gregory was that melding of broad and defined, both a sublime mocking of the tech-guru type and a hysterical creation in his own right. The show was never better than when it focused on Peter’s fascination with sesame seeds. Of course, a show cannot be blamed for a tragedy like death, but Welch's absence did make the show’s flaws that much more glaring. The closest Silicon Valley got to filling the hole he left was with Zach Woods’ brilliant work, especially in the season finale (“Which one? Which one? Which one?”). Woods has been great for a while now, popping up everywhere this past season of television. But his delirium there may have been the peak of his underestimated talents.

The finale also served to promise dramatic changes for next season, and patched up the central conflict of these episodes well enough. Plenty of issues still remain (reducing Monica to solely a love interest could be the show’s final undoing), and it remains to be seen if Welch’s death will be incorporated into the show in any way. Regardless, these episodes hold moments of greatness, where the Mike Judge sensibility worked perfectly. But there were other times, especially in the sixth and seventh episodes of the season, where the whole thing teetered on the edge of falling apart. This show can be smart and this show can be funny, but it’s still working out how to be both at once.

Grade: B

Miscellaneous:
  • I didn't really touch on the woman problem here, but that will come later this week.
  • And, finally, another goodbye to Christopher Evan Welch. It seems unquestionable that this would have been his breakthrough role, but he did plenty of great work before Silicon Valley. His scene in The Master is one of the best of that film, and he was a main cast member on the terrific and short-lived Rubicon. He's a true talent, and, even more importantly, he was a person. The loss is deeply felt.

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