Silicon Valley’s Office Politic
The workplace has played a fraught role in America’s pop cultural life as of late, particularly as refracted through the lens of popular television. We’ve had the banal cubicle hilarity of The Office and Workaholics contrasted with the austere eros and thanatos of mid-century-modern Mad Men. Then there’s the bureaucracy-bound political machinations of Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing and (the often Sorkin-like) House of Cards, which take place in offices of another sort. In Sorkin’s failed The Newsroom, the office itself may as well be the central protagonist; the characters do little else than scurry around, servicing its various keyboards, screens, and cameras.
In Mike Judge’s HBO workplace comedy Silicon Valley, however, the office has dematerialized—though the characters and the work remain. Throughout the show’s first season, which wrapped up this week, Richard Hendriks, the youthful, awkward (is there any other kind?) founder of a start-up called “Pied Piper,” leads his band of four merry men on their quest to create a better file-compression program within the confines not of a plush office, but of a makeshift kitchen table stacked with laptops and monitors.
The new vision of work as depicted in the show marks the successful entrance of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial myth into the popular imagination: namely, if you can cram a bunch of dudes into a grungy space and have them tap at keyboards long enough, you can change the world—or at least make more money than any one human being could hope to spend in their life, whichever comes first. Silicon Valley is reaffirming and perpetuating the archetype that The Social Network started—the myth of the heroic entrepreneur.
So what does this new cultural archetype look like? Well, it’s certainly male. The main characters of the show form a faux frat house of sensitive dudes who don’t mock women so much as just . . . not ever interact with them on a meaningful level. They get embarrassed at the presence of a stripper named Mochachino and any explicit references to sex. Their heroes—the Peter Thiel-inspired investor-savant Peter Gregory, played brilliantly by the sadly departed Christopher Evan Welch—are male, too. The only significant recurring female character is Gregory’s assistant and Hendriks’s putative (though unconvincing) love interest, Monica, who doesn’t seem to possess a last name. The rest are even thinner cardboard cut-outs, including a hapless cupcake start-up founder who constantly needs the Pied Piper team’s help with coding.
The start-up mythos starts out shabby, but it doesn’t stay that way. Much of the first season takes place in a cut-rate hacker hostel owned by the shaggy extrovert of the group, Erlich Bachman, an older tech veteran who already sold his nonsense company for a fortune, though a fortune that’s small by Valley standards. The characters bounce around this improvisational space like it’s a dorm room, playing video games and hiding under the table when a particularly nasty problem surfaces. Fittingly, the man-children sleep in bunk beds.
The show perpetuates the fictional cliché of the start-up garage. We expect giant tech companies to come from scrappy roots, overcoming obstacles on their way to well-deserved riches, which happens regularly in Silicon Valley. Yet that transformation has negative consequences. The megalomaniacal CEO of “Hooli,” the show’s Google stand-in and Hendriks’s former employer, is a nemesis, but he also serves to show what Hendriks will become if he succeeds.
Pied Piper is far from a losing company. Out of the diverse group of Pied Piper employees, it’s predictably the white-male leader who makes the last-minute save. Where Don Draper has his hallelujah ad pitches, Hendriks has methods of mashing data together inspired by jerk-off jokes. They’re not so different.
By the end of the season (spoiler alert) Hendriks crushes Hooli’s compression algorithm clone with the help of a heroic solo late-night coding spree, and wins top start-up prize at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference, which the television show doesn’t even bother to satirize, simply presenting it as fact. (Whether this was product placement or not, Techcrunch must have been thrilled with the advertising—though Re/code and Valleywag, other tech rags, also get referenced in the episode. But the conference is also one of the show’s most pointed bits of real-world satire. Techcrunch has often been said to parody itself, and now we know it does.)
For its many faults, Silicon Valley makes for engrossing television. Moments like Erlich’s mushroom-driven vision quest for a start-up name and Jared’s expedition aboard a container ship piloted entirely by robots, are hilarious even if the show pulls its punches at Valley culture. The satire could intensify in season two as Pied Piper glides into the upper echelons of the tech industry, and the show will benefit if it does.
If Silicon Valley is to take its place in the TV pantheon as an incisive comedy, it must interrogate the cultural myths forming around the workplace, employment, and labor. As start-up culture merges with regular pop culture (see, for instance, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess and AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire), such TV shows and films will be expected to question why technology entrepreneurs succeed, and how they use their money.
While we don’t yet know if Silicon Valley is a cautionary tale, there are certainly damaging effects of the community it depicts, and it would be nice to see the show get into those consequences further. Mad Men is succeeding in carrying out this critique, but for an office politic that existed fifty years ago. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait so long this time.