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'Silicon Valley' Has Turned into the 'Office Space' Sequel We Need

Finally someone is treating capitalism as a joke.

Early in season two of Silicon Valley, there's a scene where the hapless, usually tongue-tied protagonist Richard (Thomas Middleditch) tries to explain to his company's new CEO why his compression algorithm is so important. "Every mobile device on the face of the planet could be able to access their data as if they had a fiberoptic cable plugged into it," he says. "People in the desert, people in refugee camps, people who have nothing could suddenly have access to everything! Everybody in this industry, they say they want to make the world a better place, but we could actually do it."


The CEO, played by Stephen Tobolowsky with a jovial daddishness that can bubble into rage at any time, is having none of it. It's more important that the company appeal to investors—and anyway, he's got to get back to the matter at hand, which is watching his breeding mare get noisily inseminated by a stallion whose sperm is worth $150,000.

This being HBO, we get lots of money shots of full-on horse sex, but the bit also serves as a two-pronged business lesson: First, it doesn't matter that your heart is in the right place. Second, someone is always getting fucked.

The show, executive produced by the legendary Mike Judge and Alec Berg, has been a brutal, clear-eyed satire of the tech industry for two seasons; in its third, as the gang behind the startup Pied Piper find themselves turning into a real company, it's started to take on the business world in the vein of Judge's Office Space. And thank Christ it does, because it's been a long time since there was a high-quality show that didn't treat capitalism as serious business.

In the past few years, the most notable movies about Silicon Valley were The Social Networkand Steve Jobs, critic catnip biopics that may not have idolized their subjects but gave Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg the great-man-of-history treatment: Just imagine, without those two titans of industry, you wouldn't be scrolling through Facebook on your iPhone right now! The decade's most prominent TV show about business was Mad Men, a similarly hefty and award-winning entertainment product centered on a series of monologues about how to sell cigarettes or floor cleaner, and AMC has followed that up with Halt and Catch Fire, a drama set in the early days of the computer industry. Even that movie where Ashton Kutcher starred as Jobs was somehow a drama.


These films and series are fine (well, except for that Kutcher disaster), but they're also utterly unrealistic. Most companies are not helmed by troubled visionary antiheroes; most people's jobs, even important and high-paying jobs, consist of a series of pointless, absurd, and unconnected crises. Silicon Valley, like so much of Judge's work, gets at a core truth about humanity: Almost no one knows what they're doing.

Like any solid sitcom, the show's premise is simple. Richard is that rare Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has a piece of truly groundbreaking technology. He's trying to turn his invention into a major company, along the way trying to outwit investors and competitors who are all more street-smart and pragmatic than he is. It's like a story about an aspiring singer or writer who steps off the bus in New York or LA and has his dreams ground to dust by the machine, except in this case Richard has an algorithm instead of a song or a script.

Mostly, Silicon Valley's plot is just an excuse to roam around a landscape made absurd by the confluence of too much youth, money, and buzzwords. Season three gives us Erich (T.J. Miller) kicking the shit out of one of those weird deer-like robots, the gang getting lost inside a subterranean server farm, the meek Jared (Zach Woods) being forced out of his own apartment by his Airbnb guest, Martin Starr's perpetually chilled-out coder, Bertram, being sent hoverboards and Oculus Rifts as gifts from job recruiters, Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) playing computer solitaire with a Keyglove and several linked monitors. And that's just in the three episodes HBO made available to critics.

The show has been committed to realism since it began, but its setting means there's a bottomless well of tech-world strangeness to feature. Take writer Anna Wiener's recent look back at her tenure in Silicon Valley published in n+1, for instance, which includes stories about her going to a job interview where a company founder asked her to take the LSAT while he checks her phone, and a lucky programmer who wins half a million at a hackathon. What makes Silicon Valley funny isn't how bizarre it is, but how close to the truth it cuts.

It's also true to life in the way the Valley denizens depicted are overwhelmingly caucasian and male. That's disappointing in some ways, but it makes sense thematically—Judge's oeuvre is mostly concerned with white dudes, especially those who find themselves successful for no good reason. Think Luke Wilson's everyman transformed into a genius in a planet of morons in Idiocracy, or Ron Livingston's slacker in Office Space, who discovers that hard work has nothing to do with success, and that neither have anything to do with happiness.

Likewise, in the world of Silicon Valley people get millions of dollars for no reason, they stumble upon ultra-valuable pieces of code by accident, and the difference between being a loser taking bong hits in a startup "incubator" and a billionaire is a couple good meetings with VCs. If the show has a message, it's this: High-stakes capitalism here isn't a meritocracy where the talented great men rise to the top, but a dog pile where fools are parted from their money by only slightly smarter fools. It's fun to imagine the ship of industry is piloted by CEOs with pioneering instincts, but it seems more likely that people don't know what they're doing, and we're all just sort of blundering around, and some of us fail our way into achievement. You can't put that worldview on an inspirational poster, but I find it oddly comforting.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.