Saturday, June 7, 2014

HBO's Silicon Valley: I expect better

Just so you know, I started this review of HBO's Silicon Valley after the pilot episode which, btw, I hated. Initially, I found that it was so disappointingly bad that it actually spurred me to write a review. But I keep wanting to give it a chance, to let it breath and open up -- this is, after all, a series from the same guy that did Office Space. Plus, there's something about watching movies or TV programs that are set in the place that you live, whether it's just watching for landmarks or looking for geographic continuity, it draws you in.

Silicon Valley delivered little over the course of it's seasonal run. Overall, there were maybe or four moments in the series that seemed amusing. And for those few moments which I would be hesitant to call gems, you had to endure the rest of it. Back at the first episode, here's what I started to write. I can't say that my opinion changed much.

So I worked my way through the first episode of HBO's Silicon Valley show yesterday. I say worked my way through because I've had root canals that were more pleasant -- at least I was medicated for the root canal.

More than amusing me or making me chuckle, Silicon Valley just made me angry. It was 50 minutes of time wasted not just because it wasn't good, but because it was a series of "funny" takes on "modern" Silicon Valley culture that have been done multiple times in other places. They trotted out the stylized tech company campus meant to be like Google or Facebook complete with the multi-person bike "used for meetings". Hollywood loves them some multi-person bike.

For me, there were so many tired Silicon Valley tropes that imagine a mythological world that we supposedly live in:
  • The doctor pitching investment in the device he's developing; why, because I guess people in Silicon Valley people are supposed to be like people in Hollywood pitching their scripts.
  • Technology people describing their product with a long string of meaningless techno-babble keywords and phrases.
  • The universal 'demographic mix' of programmers
  • The great core technology breakthrough that will revolutionize the world.
Admittedly, we live in an amazing place and it would seem like there is the framework for a great story here -- perhaps that's why it's so disappointing to deal with the same old tired cliches.

Compare Silicon Valley to Amazon's now cancelled Betas series. There were a lot of things that I didn't like about Betas, but there were aspects of it that were way more authentic. Instead of being so Hollywood-formulaic, Betas felt more start-up, exploring territory that conventional movies and television don't go. The thing that actually grabbed us into that first episode was the bit with the Asian female character and the texting prank, something that never would have made it on network TV. And that's sort of what makes Silicon Valley so maddening. This is HBO. They aren't bound by the lowest common denominator decency rules and limitations of network TV. But clearly, they are still bound by its conventions.

Fundamentally, I think that Silicon Valley falls down exactly because it tries to find the humorous aspects of Silicon Valley.
Over the course of it's season, Silicon Valley was ripe with cameos. This seemed like yet-another Hollywood device to make it feel authentic, "if we just use real personalities, it will be more real". In that way, it almost seemed like it was more interested in making it seem real than making interesting characters and an interesting story.

Another one that was surprising, one of the guys over on the Pando Daily staff really seemed to like Silicon Valley. He actually wrote several rather positive reviews. It's actually one of the reasons why I put my initial review on hold -- I looked at his review and thought, "am I missing something?" It's a good reminder that, like restaurant reviews and various other opinions, to each their own. 

The One Moment
Looking back over the course of it's season, there was just one moment for me, one brief gag that spoke to a deeper truth of Silicon Valley. It was in episode 8, the season finale. It was like an actual cameo of authenticity. No spoilers, but let me just say that it starts as little more than a dick joke, a predictable bit of humor that flows through the season. But, in this one moment, there is a difference. The joke twists and the "engineer" takes over. Suddenly, you have an entire room working analytically to solve a theoretical problem without regard to the plausibility of the initial premise. This really is Silicon Valley in it's essence, this free-form willingness to throw resources and processor cycles on what-ifs, to engineer a world on a foundation of imagination.

If the rest of the series had been like this, Silicon Valley might be content I would recommend. Instead, the sum of its parts is about eight hours of wasted time.

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