In a lavish Silicon Valley mansion, amid ridiculous liquid-shrimp appetizers and a performance from Kid Rock— “the poorest person here” in a room full of Eric Schmidts and Elon Musks—a handful of hoodie-clad twentysomethings start grumbling.
“These guys built a mediocre piece of software that might be worth something someday, and now they live here,” the shaggy-haired one says to his gangly friend. “There’s money flying all over Silicon Valley, but none of it ever seems to hit us.”
A few moments later, the gangly one observes, “It’s amazing how the men and women at these things always separate like this.” A third jumps in: “Every party in Silicon Valley ends up looking like a Hasidic wedding.”
With that, the first few minutes of HBO's sharp new comedy Silicon Valley from Office Space creator (and former software engineer) Mike Judge lay out most of the reasons why the titular tech hub is ripe for skewering: It’s full of young people with too much money, revered personalities with cultish admirers, and brilliant professionals who are disasters in their personal life thanks to their industry’s “women problem.”
The show, which premieres Sunday and has already been met with enthusiastic reviews, adds to a small wave of television projects scrutinizing the culture of the Bay Area's most notorious industry. Betas, one of Amazon's early forays into original content, premiered last November; Bravo’s 2012 reality series Start-Ups: Silicon Valley counted Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of Facebook founder Mark, as an executive producer. (In March, Amazon chose not to renew Betas; Bravo canceled Start-Ups after one season.) The projects arrive sandwiched between two Steve Jobs biopics—Jobs opened in theaters last August, while Aaron Sorkin's similar project is in the works—and just a few years after David Fincher's Oscar-winning The Social Network (also penned by Sorkin) made a million dollars uncool.
Silicon Valley has been the epicenter of information-technology innovation for decades, though. So why are all these shows about it happening now?
When The Social Network premiered in 2010, some wondered whether it was "too soon" to make a movie about a then-six-year-old company that, while clearly revolutionary, was still in the early stages. Now, the people behind Silicon Valley and Betas say they're surprised there haven't been more shows and movies about this world. The turning point, according to Betas co-creator Evan Endicott, wasn't so much the success of The Social Network as it was the rapid ascension of the iPhone. Since it debuted its first-generation device in 2007, Apple has familiarized the masses with apps, social networks, and the startups that hope too get rich off of them.
"A billion people are now walking around with this stuff dictating how they interact with the world," Endicott says. "It felt like you could have a show now because you wouldn’t have to catch people up on the language. It would be too arcane of a world if it wasn’t so prevalent. It just kind of took the iPhone coming along and normalizing it all for this to be really viable comic territory without having it be a specialty show."
Making it in the tech world, the goal shared by Silicon Valley's and Betas's programmer protagonists, also became something of a new American dream for young people. Both Endicott and Silicon Valley executive producer Alec Berg liken the growing career interest in the field to a “gold rush”; in a New York Times story about The Social Network and the rising number of college students pursuing computer-science degrees and heading west, one academic called it the industry's "Sputnik moment." The Social Network wasn't exactly the most flattering portrayal of Facebook's creator, but David Fincher's slick, cinematic cool helped make many twentysomethings eager to try and become the next Zuckerberg anyway. As Ed Lazowska, a professor at the University of Washington, told the Times, the industry had long hoped for “a show like the lawyer and doctor shows that make being a software person sexy."
Jargon litters the scripts of Silicon Valley and Betas: incubators, accelerators, angel investors, GitHub, TED talks, consumer-facing proprietary sites, “aspies” and the online dating sites that exist for them. Part of this is simply world-building; both production teams did extensive research and met with real-life tech employees while developing their series. But when audiences are already plugged into the culture enough to catch some or all of these references, showrunners can spend less time explaining terminology and more time telling good stories. Building an app is not as interesting to watch as a cop-show shootout; people huddled around computers are not as exciting as bloody patients flying through the doors of an emergency rooms. But betrayals, excessive parties, eccentric personalities, and young people with no experience convinced their idea can change that world? Now that's good TV.
"We kept hearing all these stories of four guys starting a company in their dorm room in college and, when it becomes worth real money, they fight over it," says Berg, a former writer for Seinfeld. "People who sit around sophomore year and dick around with code are suddenly arguing over very real numbers. Having to fire your best friend seemed like a very interesting and funny, weird story."
Adding to that drama is the recent and rapid change in public opinion toward the Bay Area. A March cover story in New York magazine wondered whether San Francisco was becoming the new NYC given its high cost of living, its housing crisis, and the number of wealthy tech stars transforming the city—a question Gawker's Valleywag writer Sam Biddle interpreted as, "Is San Francisco America's New Worst Place?"
"I think we timed it perfectly," Berg says. "When I first started working on the show, I was aware of the world, but almost the day I started working, it seemed every day there was a new Google bus [incident] or Tom Perkins running his mouth." Toward the end of last year, Google’s shuttles that transport San Francisco residents to and from the company’s offices in Mountain View became the target of tense protests that blamed them for worsening the city’s housing and cost of living issues. And in a widely criticized letter in The Wall Street Journal this past January, Perkins, one of Silicon Valley’s foremost venture capitalists, compared the war on the one-percent to Nazi Germany—another glaring reminder that some of the industry’s most important personalities can be quite out of touch.
In The New Republic's December cover story about hate-watching Washington, T.A. Frank argued that the recent crop of cynical shows about the nation's capital—including House of Cards, Veep, Scandal, Alpha House (another of Amazon's original series)—reflected widespread, unfavorable attitudes toward the national government. Aaron Sorkin's earnest and optimistic The West Wing had been "fluke, born of a time when our elites looked competent and wise." Neither Betas nor Silicon Valley devote too much time to tearing plotlines from recent headlines—an early scene in Silicon Valley on board a Google bus-like shuttle does briefly address rising real-estate prices—but the tech world will increasingly get the Washington treatment, Endicott thinks.