Every week when we start our Marketplace Tech game of Silicon Tally, I say something like: "I've got a number for you." And this week, ahead of that game, I do. The number is one. There's a song about it, and even some discussion about it on the Interwebs this week. That's because one is the number of lead female characters in the new HBO show "Silicon Valley."
The tech industry has a women problem, and "Silicon Valley," which is about the tech industry, also has a women problem. Amanda Crew, who plays billionaire Peter Gregory's assistant Monica on the show, is the only recurring female character in all of the first season. Some feel that this is proof that the show displays "oblivious sexism." Others think the show's depiction of real world problems involving gender lacks nuance. While I cringed at one reviewer's admission that he keeps forgetting the name of Crew's character, I don't really buy these arguments. Not yet, anyway.
I think the show is good enough to get better. When the show premiered, I asked executive producer Alec Berg about the criticisms that it didn't have enough strong women characters. His response: "do we want to do the sort of perfect satirical riff on women in tech? Of course we do, and that's our intention. If we haven't gotten to it yet, it's definitely one of the things--I mean 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 into that."
So OK, sure, the show isn't Sheryl Sandberg-ing just yet. But it's also far from "Entourage." "Silicon Valley" is truly funny-sometimes even hilarious. In fact, its funniest jokes don't involve the male anatomy, but jargon and self-driving cars. A show with a sense of humor beyond male anatomy jokes is a show that can grow, even if it was made by the creator of "Beavis and Butthead." Here's one of my favorite clips from the first season, featuring Martin Star from "Freaks and Geeks" and "Party Down" fame (WARNING: some strong language in there).
I hope that in its second season, "Silicon Valley" will grow. The big question right now is whether the show will be allowed to by the network and the critics. Remember when "Girls" was criticized for not having enough diversity in the cast? That show has been allowed to exist and evolve despite that criticism--maybe "Silicon Valley" can, too.
But there's already a lot of things working against it: the focus of the show and its commitment to depicting real shop talk and happenings in the tech industry, despite the fact that most of us don't give a damn what a hash table is, or care about going to Tech Crunch Disrupt. The show isn't about a chemistry teacher or ad executive's spiral into evil or despair. But it is a show about a part of our economy, our society and our world that is a big deal these days. That in and of itself should be a strong argument for at least a few more seasons.
Before we write it off or leave it for dead (at least until season two), let's look at another few "Silicon Valley" numbers. The last episode had 1.7 million viewers. I asked a friend who studies ratings, and he says for HBO, that appears to be pretty solid--even if the show benefits greatly from airing right after a massively successful hit like "Game of Thrones." He also points out that "Silicon Valley" is currently ranked 4th out of the network's 23 series, and that it looks like it has a good playback rating too. That means part of the show's audience isn't watching it because it comes after the thing they just watched, instead choosing to stream it online at a later date. That suggests the beginnings of a loyal audience. As long as that audience exists and builds, "Silicon Valley" will have the chance to lampoon the good and the "bro" of the tech industry. Maybe even add some more consistent female characters to the mix.
Just like the world it depicts, the show's survival and improvement probably depends on it.
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