Ever Seen Seinfeld Use a Smartphone?

Technologically obsolete, yesterday’s series are still fun to watch.

Michael Handelzalts
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'Silicon Valley.' Priceless and worthless.
'Silicon Valley.' Priceless and worthless.
Michael Handelzalts

For some time now I’ve been going on in this column about the way our TV viewing habits are going, from stationary to mobile viewing, and about the seismic shift from us being programmed by channels and providers to see what they want us to see, to us being our own viewing masters.

This is indeed the trend of all viewing flesh, but truth be told, we are not there yet. Like with newsprint, which goes digital but still relies on a sizable bulk of its revenue from newspapers (printed on paper) being sold to subscribers or passersby, the TV industry is still solidly based on stationary sets being turned on (for the bulk of the infamous “ratings”) and on channels spewing their products 24/7, ready to change programming for breaking news, broadcasting world-encompassing events “live” and so on.

That creates the problem of filling the time on air in between, and that is the unsafe haven of new series (which are in the minority) and of endless reruns.

There is a tendency to denigrate reruns, as we are a society that cherishes “newness” for its own sake. I for one do not understand those viewers who would rather watch a new, untried and unproven series, than settle down for the umpteenth time to watch another episode of “Friends” or “Seinfeld”; those two are always to be had on some channel at any odd time of the day or night. And I don’t even much mind seeing a rerun of an episode of a police procedural. On the contrary: As I already know whodunit and how and why (and anyway the culprits are always apprehended in the end) I can relax and enjoy characters I’ve come to like repeating their endearing (to me) antics.

It was while watching one of those that it dawned on me what dates them faster than anything else. No, it is not the fashion, or even the language with expressions from the ’90s or even ’80s. That is perfectly acceptable, since we are used to “period” series. What makes a series that happens in “real life” (i.e. not fantasy) obsolete are the technical gadgets that are such a huge part of our daily lives.

What jolted me out of my relaxed reverie of watching another episode of “Friends” was seeing Chandler with his laptop: it looked like a big ungainly black brick, with a very blue screen. Nothing like my thin, sleek, stylish metal laptop. And then I realized that no one on “Seinfeld” or “Friends” uses a cellphone. And the detectives in police procedural reruns – even “Law and Order” – don’t have smartphones, for Alexander Graham Bell’s sake. They still use obsolete cellphones that allow only to call and be called.

That, in turn, is being rubbed into the viewers’ minds by all those technically savvy crime and action procedurals like “NCIS” or “Criminal Minds,” where documents and data are sent to the agents in the most remote fields on cellphones “as we speak” by the quirky geeks who man (and woman) the control centers and can hack into any server and glean every possible secret on demand.

Lagging behind

It all reminds us – in case we have forgotten – that we live in a perplexing divide: we have at our fingertips the power to access the world and its data in nanoseconds, and yet we are as clumsy and uncomfortable and unsure of ourselves as we always were in our human relations. Neurons in our brain may travel fast to process and conflict our emotions, but they still lag behind the speed at which we can share and process the data that overwhelms us.

This, among some other things, is the stuff that HBO’s “Silicon Valley” series is made of. Screened on Yes OH on Saturdays, it is now beginning its second season, with the third already being commissioned (nine episodes in each season). It got a warm reception all around, with respectable ratings of between 1.5 and 2 million viewers in the first season.

At its center there is a likable geek named Richard, who devised a very complicated algorithm (something you have to be able to define if you want to get anywhere in the high-tech world; I don’t, and that’s why I’m a journalist) that allows for compression of data, which is a kind of a Holy Grail of computerdom. He thought he had an idea for an application that recognizes tunes, with the algorithm being a sort of by-product. But it turned out, in season one, that he had struck a motherlode, and now everyone wants to invest in him, or to buy him, or to steal and clone him.

So it is both in the future – an idea that will provide a huge fortune in the future, when utilized – and in the present and past: Now he is being told that he is worth a fortune, but all of it hinges on a huge “if”: if he gets the money to develop and market the idea, and if the idea turns out to be the bonanza all hype it to be, and if and if and if. Richard feels that he is both priceless and worthless, and he has to decide what he chooses to be, with his value going sky-high one moment, and in the dumps the next.

It is not advisable for anyone’s self esteem, but luckily Richard is a sort of Aspergerish sort of guy (TV series love those, as they are unexpected and unfathomable and you don’t need to make them believable; Asperger’s family should get some royalties). Most of his friends and colleagues are tech weirdos, for whom “dating” – women, that is, not backdating stocks – for instance, is a challenge, but breaking a code is a piece of cake. In the first episode of the second season, Richard and his mentor “speed date” prospective investors, using unorthodox courting techniques, with surprising results.

“Silicon Valley” takes place in that divide between the future of screens and mobiles and data, and the present of emotions, hesistancy, egos (bruised and overinflated). I can’t wait to catch it in reruns some years hence, and see how fast it has dated.