'Silicon Valley' Has Become the Most Realistic Show on TV

Full-on horse sex, Bangladeshi click farms, and using endangered animals as props in board meetings were just some of the totally-not-exaggerated moments from the HBO sitcom's third season.
June 27, 2016, 8:15pm
Photo by John P. Johnson/Courtesy of HBO

Television history

Silicon Valley has enough talent assembled in front of and behind the camera that it could have pretty much just coasted on the strength of its premise. Awkward tech bros, Mike Judge–approved dick jokes, an HBO license to be as filthy as they want—combine that with a cast of relatively unknown talents like Thomas Middleditch, T. J. Miller, Zach Woods, and Kumail Nanjiani, and you could churn out a few pretty good seasons without trying all that hard.

Since it started three seasons ago, the sitcom has become TV's most famous tryhard. As a New Yorker piece on the show documented, Silicon Valley's staff has gone above and beyond in creating a world that feels like the real Silicon Valley, from major plot points to lines of code that appear on the show for just a second. They talk with tech-world players to make sure the details are accurate, they hired former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo as a consultant, they worked with a Stanford engineering professor to make sure the compression algorithm at the center of the show wasn't complete nonsense. One consultant on the show even got in—and won—a fight with some Reddit users over whether the way data was deleted from a server in one scene was accurate.


The show features a lot of silly nonsense—"You're using endangered animals just to make points at board meetings!" is one line from Sunday's season three finale—but no less than the real-life Silicon Valley, where billionaires bulldoze protected forests for their weddings and buy the houses around theirs and raze them for the sake of privacy. It's a show about vain, selfish assholes who have more power than brains; it's also a "reported sitcom," to quote the New Yorker, that is one of the few prestige-cable programs actually focused on the real world.

HBO's other Sunday night shows are great, but they lack Silicon Valley's ripped-from-reality feel. Game of Thrones is about incest and dragons; Veep presents a version of American politics that is increasingly cartoonish. Veep is hilarious, but doesn't have the pitch-black satiric bite of its British predecessor, The Thick of It.Meanwhile, Silicon Valley conceived of a caustic fake ad that mocked tech companies' grotesque self-importance and their vague-but-emotional PR pitches with devastating accuracy—and after the writers came up with it, Uber came out with a real ad that was basically the same thing. ("Consider the atom. Born 13.8 billion years ago, the atom is responsible for everything, from the BLT to moms everywhere to New York City," Uber's narrator says. "Grapefruits, postcards, hugs. These are things that people share to become closer," is the parody version.)

In its third season, the show expanded the focus from a show about a gang of coders struggling to turn an idea into technology to a show about the dirty complexities of turning technology into business. Middleditch's Richard went from being a naïve but brilliant company founder to a budding backstabbing CEO; Miller's Bachmann earned and lost a couple fortune's and demonstrated that he does have feelings despite constantly being stoned; Woods's Jared became creepily devoted to Richard and emerged as one of the funniest characters in all of TV.

The show also turned out plenty of incredible, absurdly involved set pieces, which have become its speciality. Season one brought us Jared getting stranded on a manmade island inhabited by robots and the famous how-fast-can-I-jerk-off-every-guy-in-the-room algorithm scene. Season two had a livestream of a dying man becoming a meme in the Philippines. Season three had the fake ad, a look inside a Bangladeshi click farm, and a scene that made television history by showing full-on horse sex. Then there's the best moment of the finale, where Bachmann delivers a long explanation of the Machiavellian maneuvers he undertook to get the company more funding—it's impossible to describe but it involves a lot of name-dropping of real-life VCs and jacking off (but not to completion) at a hardware store.

The third season wasn't made up of one long arc but a bunch of little ones, which might have reduced Silicon Valley's dramatic heft, but the show is best when it spins off its characters into subplots all around the tech world—Jared gets evicted from his house by his own Airbnb tenant; Richard ends a budding relationship with a woman over a coding formatting argument; Josh Brener's Big Head loses the millions he got for doing nothing to a set of unscrupulous advisors.

At the end of the season, the characters wind up back in the place they've been since the start of the show: In Bachmann's house, working on an app, trying to take on the world. It takes a bunch of unlikely plot twists to get them there, but the commitment to realism doesn't extend to the mechanics of the story. In real life, a company like Pied Piper would turn into a unicorn or crash, burn, and get sold off for parts—but either of those outcomes would mean the end of Silicon Valley. Hopefully, the writers will be able to keep this status quo up for at least a few more seasons, because right now one of the best times on TV is watching these guys navigate a fictional world that's all too real.

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