AUSTIN, TX: Silicon Valley, Mike Judge and Alec Berg’s new HBO comedy, opens with a rather alarmingly incongruous image: Kid Rock, on a neon-covered stage, in mid-performance. Lest we worry that we’ve accidentally switched over to NASCAR, Judge pulls back to reveal where Rock is performing: in front of a sparsely populated, totally uninterested party of tech geeks. The man throwing the party just made a mint selling his product to Google; the four men first seen standing around drinking beer (a subconscious shout-out to Judge’s King of the Hill) are on the other side of the equation, coders and programmers slaving away, desperately hoping to get rich off the next big thing. And then, almost accidentally, one of them discovers it.
That’s the setup for the show, which unveiled its first two episodes at a SXSW screening and panel Monday, as part of the film festival’s new “Episodic” sidebar. It was a series that had been in the back of Judge’s mind for a while, he told the SXSW audience. He was drawn to the idea of “a show like Dallas or Falcon Crest, but instead of oil or wine money, it would be tech money. And also I remember reading this Rolling Stone article about Paul Allen, and it occurred to me that these tech guys just get billions of dollars, and they don’t really know how to enjoy themselves, and they’re still socially awkward, and a little awkward around women.” HBO originally wanted Judge to do a show about gamers, but he didn’t think he knew enough about video games; however, he’d been an engineer and worked in Silicon Valley, and felt qualified to take that world on.
The challenge of the show, according to co-showrunner Alec Berg (an alum of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm), was to create something viscerally interesting out of the “inherently unfilmmable” world of programming and venture capital. “I’ve always said there’s a reason there’s a ton of cop shows,” Berg explained, “and tons of hospital shows, because you just hang around there and interesting stuff happens. But watching people type is not probably the most fascinating thing in the world.”
The solution also allowed Judge to avoid revisiting the workplace-comedy tropes of his cult classic Office Space: setting up his four protagonists in a combination work/home, run by a would-be Sean Parker (played to gonzo perfection by T.J. Miller), something like the coding house in The Social Network — but as you’d expect to see it through the eyes of Beavis and Butt-Head’s creator. The technical stuff feels authentic (as authentic as it needs to feel, anyway); the show is really about the relationships between these guys, who are brought to life by an enviable cast of comic MVPs including Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, Zach Woods, and Thomas Middleditch.
Middleditch’s Richard gives the series its motor, playing the crew’s best programmer, whose unmarketable songwriting app uses a new algorithm for fast, lossless compression that turns out to be quite valuable indeed. He becomes the object of a bitter bidding war between two competing titans before deciding to take the investment of one to build his own company (a great scene finds him turning to Wikipedia’s “Business Plan” entry). Soon enough, they’re in a race to get the company going before a knock-off is backwards-engineered by the jilted party.
There’s plenty of “inside baseball” stuff here — obscure references, inside jokes, and those who know the scene will surely form their own theories on who represents who, particularly when it comes to the cults of personality surrounding their self-important gurus (“Hooli isn’t just software. Hooli is about people“) and self-consciously hip “campuses” (“The marketing team is having another bike meeting. Douchebags”). But it’s by no means impenetrable; this is a classic underdog comedy, about a group of misfits who’ve “been getting the shit kicked out of us for years” and finally find themselves on the verge of success, if they can get out of their own way.
Most importantly, it separates itself from the seemingly similar Big Bang Theory via the shambling charm and effortless hilarity of Judge’s best work, which has always focused on geeks of some stripe. And that’s where the casting is so key — and the acting so seemingly effortless. “We may not be coders, but we’re pretty nerdy dudes,” Middleditch confessed, and though Miller doesn’t share his co-stars’ enthusiasm for video games (“I’m not that good at video games — I like fighting and shooting in real life”), he confirmed the cast’s tendencies: “In between takes, all these guys would play Magic: The Gathering, and I’d be like, ‘You gotta go back in and act like nerds,’ and they’re like, ‘Hold on! I’m casting a spell!”
Silicon Valley premieres April 6 on HBO.
Update: an earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified Silicon Valley‘s co-showrunner, Alec Berg, as its co-creator.