By Benjamin Lucas
The first thing that came to mind when watching the previews for the South Bay-set workplace riff (which marks HBO’s second show of the year inhabiting San Francisco Bay Area, after the understated and quite enjoyable “Looking”) was 1999’s “Office Space.”
Clearly, there is something about the workplace that sparks creativity in “Silicon Valley” creator Mike Judge, who pioneered the droll office comedy long before Britain’s “The Office” came around.
The variations on the subject that followed (NBC’s “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” and the short-lived “Outsourced”) became increasingly broad and affectionate. Over time, we saw the office become a means to camaraderie and sitcom sweetness, whereas “Office Space” zeroed in on the soul-sucking monotony of the cubicle farm and exaggerated it for a painfully hilarious and slightly depressing satire.
Judge’s work has always had a cynical heart, but Judge never comes across as bitter. He treats his characters with, at the very least, a modicum of affection. There’s a playfulness to “Beavis and Butt-head” that keeps you from getting too pissed off at who you’re watching.
In Idiocracy, Judge presents a dystopian future where everyone is as dumb as a bag of rocks, in ways that are both infuriating and guffaw-inducing. It’s hard to really hate anyone in Judge’s universe.
Richard Hendrix, played by Thomas Middleditch, is an awkward twenty-something who finds himself working at a Google-esque corporation, Hooli. Hooli is complete with snobby programmers, glossy white textures and bike meetings — which are meetings held on a sort of circular tandem bike.
Everyone in the building seems to have his or her own big idea in his or her back pocket, and those who break through and find success all chime in with the sentiment that they’re “making the world a better place.”
Hendrix’s big idea is a website that checks if a song you are writing will likely violate any copyright laws due to similarities to an existing song. If that sounds like a niche market, you’re probably right, but it’s the algorithm inside it that grabs the attention of two monolithic billionaires.
Suddenly, Hendrix’s idea goes from a pipe dream to a multi-billion dollar idea, and in its premiere episode, Hendrix sees two conflicting offers that boil down to either selling the company for a large, large sum or maintaining control over it to the bitter end.
Middleditch injects sincere awkwardness into what could easily have been written off as a geekish stereotype. Often, shows with gawky protagonists will give their protagonists conveniently sitcom-ready social missteps, but Hendrix is genuinely uncomfortable in the face of company and, more importantly, aware of his own shortcomings.
That’s not to say he carries the show alone — the rest of the ensemble is impressive in its own right. While they aren’t given much time to play off of each other in the pilot, the ensemble actors do have their fair share of standout moments.
My favorite was T.J. Miller as the smug start-up magnate-slash-landlord, who is condescending in a well-meaning sort of way.
“Silicon Valley” demonstrates a keen understanding of its titular area’s culture and the way its inhabitants talk, perhaps due to Judge’s own experience working at Parallax in 1987. “The people I met were like Stepford Wives. They were true believers in something, and I don’t know what it was,” he said in a Wired interview. He’s definitely onto something. The way that the first episode, “Minimum Viable Product,” pokes fun at its environment is both clever and promising.