HBO heads to Silicon Valley

HBO's "Silicon Valley" airs Sundays at 10 PM 

HBO premiered "Silicon Valley" this week. The show finds the funny side of what it means to struggle to be the next WhatsApp or Instagram. Critics are pointing out that there are few female characters in the show, thus far. Executive producer and writer Alec Berg says some of that is about getting the details of the tech industry right.

"People keep saying, 'There are a lot of women in tech. What about Marissa Mayer? What about Sheryl Sandberg?' Yeah, there are women in tech. We aren't saying there aren't," says Berg. "Do we want to do the perfect satirical riff on women in tech? Of course we do, and that's our intention. If we haven't gotten to it yet, just the fact that that is one of the hot-button issues that everybody brings up, that to me means we owe it to the show, to 'lean in' to that."

And how does Berg measure success of the show?

"The big thing for us was: Does it play for everybody?," he asks. "The realer we make it, the more the enjoyment factor goes up for people who don't know anything about it. You know, it just feels like a real world because ideally it's very true to that world."


Recapping the pilot of HBO's "Silicon Valley"

by Tobin Low

HBO's inaugural venture into Silicon Valley opens with a shot of Kid Rock performing, which is immediately surprising because ... who even knew Kid Rock still makes music? I'd sooner expect to see him on Dancing with the Stars, but I digress. The point is, he's performing for a minimal audience of not-so-excited Silicon Valley techies at a party celebrating the latest startup to be bought for millions of dollars ($200 million, to be exact -- which, in light of recent purchases made in the tech industry, doesn’t seem like that much money). Kudos to Kid for poking fun at his own lack of cache.

The opening sequence is getting at the larger setup for the show: the race to be the next it thing in Silicon Valley. It’s a topic we’ve explored before, and seems increasingly relevant as startups get snatched up for more and more money. The dream of receiving a fate-changing phone call from a Google or a Facebook is what drives Erlich, the founder of the Hacker Hostel, and his startup tenants, Richard, Big Head, Dinesh, and Gilfoyle. They're all at said party, and they're all unhappy to be there witnessing someone else's success.

Take Richard, for example. He and Big Head work for a Google-esque tech conglomerate named Hooli, whose offices look like a mix between UCLA's cafeteria and an REI showroom (i.e. an adult Gymboree with a sushi bar). We see Richard get bullied by two other employees -- apparently the Silicon Valley equivalent of jocks -- as he tries to defend the concept of his music-matching app, Pied Piper. What he wants more than anything is respect, but he doesn’t seem to be getting much from his coworkers or Erlich.

But Richard's luck is about to take a turn. After mumbling his way through an elevator speech to high-powered investor Peter Gregory, Richard gets competing offers for his Pied Piper algorithm from Gregory and Hooli CEO Gavin Belson.

Let's pause for a second to talk about Peter Gregory and Gavin Belson. Peter Gregory is introduced to the show via a TED talk about the virtues of abandoning higher education to pursue one's dreams. He believes in the idea so much that he’s offering $100,000 to any student who follows through on leaving college. Many see parallels to Silicon Valley angel investor Peter Thiel. Gavin Belson is part Steve Jobs, part AOL digital prophet Shingy, which is to say that he's brilliant and filled to the brim with meaningless buzzwords. These characters are a send up of every Steve Ballmer yell, every Steve Jobs powerpoint presentation, and every SXSW panel you’ve ever seen. They are Tech CEO 2.0.

And they offer Richard two different philosophical routes: Belson wants to buy the company outright for millions of dollars, ensuring that Richard's algorithm is used in Hooli's best interest. Belson wants to buy 10 percent of the company for $200,000, leaving Richard in control with the ability to continue to grow his idea as its own company. It's less money, but it also means Richard could become his own Gregory or Belson. 

In the pièce de résistance of the episode, Richard returns home to tell a ramen slurping Erlich (who is sure to be coming to a meme near you) that he has decided to take the modest offer from Belson in exchange for the chance to become his own CEO. Instead of the expected blow-up, Erlich is totally onboard with the idea, admitting that when he sold his own startup, he also sold a piece of his heart.

It's an optimistic end to a show that is more than a little bit cynical about the culture of Silicon Valley. What makes it interesting is that the plot of Silicon Valley (at least so far) is distinctly different than the one playing itself out over and over again in the tech industry. From Instagram to WhatsApp, most companies have a great idea, grow it, and then sell it to the Hooli's of the world (which doesn't work out for everyone). Will Richard and company do the same? Will Erlich ever find a t-shirt that fits his body? Will I ever understand what "algorithm" means beyond thinking of it as "fancy math"? At least one of these questions should be answered this season.

If you missed the pilot, watch the full episode below (warning: content is rated TV-MA):

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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