What Sets HBO's 'Silicon Valley' Apart From Its Tech Bros

'Silicon Valley' is funnier than Israeli and British shows about startups. Here's why

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A scene from the fourth season of 'Silicon Valley.' Not easy to fulfill your dreams.
A scene from the fourth season of 'Silicon Valley.' Not easy to fulfill your dreams. Credit: HOT/HBO
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

The official population of Israel is now 8.7 million – which means there about 8.7 million startups here, too. Five years ago, you couldn’t walk into a Tel Aviv café without hearing someone discussing their app and exit strategy (it’s only in the territories Israel doesn’t have one of these), and now the talk has moved onto “Big Data” and “working on an algorithm.” The Book of Jobs is far more relevant to these folk than the Book of Job. And don’t worry, if you hear about a north Tel Aviv baby in an incubator, it’s probably part of a startup.

>> 10 startup tips we learned from watching "Silicon Valley" >>

So it makes sense that the so-called Startup Nation was ahead of the curve when it came to making television shows about high-tech dreamers and schemers. “Mesudarim” (slang for “Set for Life”) ran for two seasons between 2007 and 2009, chronicling the lives of four young men who sold their gaming company for $217 million, bought a $4.5 million communal mansion and struggled to balance their new-found wealth with old responsibilities.

It was an Israeli riff on “Entourage,” which may explain why no U.S. channel ever remade it (although Fox did buy the rights). But 10 years after the original, a remake, “Loaded,” has just started airing on Channel 4 in Britain. That’s a surprise, because Britain is most definitely not Startup Nation. It may have progressed slightly from being a “nation of shopkeepers,” but this is not a country that celebrates maverick businessmen. And while California has Silicon Valley and Israel Silicon Wadi, Britain has given the world the Silicon Roundabout in east London.

In the remake (available via the usual “sources”), four single British men sell their gaming company – which produces a smartphone game called Cat Factory – for £14.5 million apiece. As they come to terms with their changing fortunes, they also discover a downside: Their new boss is a ball-busting, but definitely not stereotype-busting, corporate American (Mary McCormack).

There’s a lot of potential in an updated version of “Mesudarim.” As the lead character in “Loaded,” Josh (Jim Howick) states, “There’s never been a more insensitive time to be a millionaire.” But “Loaded” fails to get beyond Level One. Its biggest glitch is that it is simply not funny: I laughed once during the first 40 minutes – about the same as when I listen to a Country & Western album.

Seeing four privileged Brits stressing over how to spend their bounty seems to be taking First World problems to new extremes. I’ve hung out with mayflies longer than I want to spend with any of these characters.

Thank heavens, then – or as the Satanist Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) would say, thank hell – for “Silicon Valley” (Mondays at 22.30 on HOT HBO and Wednesdays at 23.15 on Yes Oh), now in its fourth season. You could argue that the HBO comedy reverse-engineered “The Big Bang Theory” and added dick jokes. But that would be selling the show way too short – and as the finale to season one proved, no one does a dick joke quite like “Silicon Valley.”

I must confess that I came late to the “Silicon Valley” party – or, to put it in high-tech terms, during the fourth round of funding. Blame that on that Peak TV problem I wrote about the other week, and an inclination to prioritize dramas and thrillers over the seemingly more frivolous charms of the half-hour comedy.

In fairness, there are a lot of comedies out there. Hollywood trade newspaper Variety reported that there were 169 U.S. comedies broadcast in 2015, which translates into an awful lot of writers sweating over setups and payoffs. How do you separate the wheat from the tumbleweed? Just because “Silicon Valley” is on HBO, it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s going to be funny – I mean, did you see “The Brink” or “Ballers”?

Socially inept dweebs

But having laughed my way through 33 episodes in a week, I am now a fully committed partner in the Pied Piper enterprise. Mike Judge’s show recognizes what both “Loaded” and “Mesudarim” don’t: That there’s far more comic potential in seeing a startup trying to climb the slippery pole than one that’s already reached the top; and there’s far greater drama in seeing defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory, as life constantly conspires against our nerdy heroes. Or as a venture capitalist snarls in the season four opener, “I’m sorry, is it hard to become a billionaire? Welcome to the Valley, assholes.”

One benefit from watching every episode back-to-back is that it allows you to see the show’s progression from quirky workplace comedy (and, given that these guys all live and work in the same place, also domestic comedy) to surprisingly touching meditation on how hard it is to realize your dreams. And although these may be the smartest guys in the room, they’re also socially inept dweebs who are far more comfortable talking algorithms than they are with women.

“Silicon Valley” remains laugh-out-loud funny and crude as hell (what else would you expect from the creator of “Beavis and Butt-Head”?), but also smart about showing what kind of earth these geeks want to inherit. Or as the increasingly paranoid tech billionaire Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) puts it, “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.”

You don’t need to run a beta test to understand why “Silicon Valley” works and “Loaded” doesn’t: it’s the characters, stupid. There isn’t one who doesn’t bring something to the San Francisco Bay Area party. These are people you want to hang with, whereas you just want to see those in “Loaded” hang.

Pied Piper CEO Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) is so nebbishy that, four seasons in, it’s still hard to believe he isn’t Jewish, while incubator funder Erlich Bachman (comedian T.J. Miller) gets the biggest yucks with his brash ringmaster shtick. Then there’s the Odd Couple interplay between Gilfoyle and “the Karachi Kid” Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), slacker Big Head (Josh Brener) and, best of all, Jared (Zach Woods), who slays with his emotionally stilted earnestness: “Have you seen the new Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition? The cover model has the most lovely, enigmatic facial expression.”

Although “Silicon Valley” depicts a world in which the ability to “pivot” is key to a startup’s survival, the show itself has never deviated from its original mission: to portray the contradictions of a world that is both incredibly corporate yet needs unconventional visionaries in order to flourish. Do yourself a favor and invest some of your hard-earned free time in it.