Why new TV show Silicon Valley is like Entourage for geeks

The new TV comedy show focuses on California's hi-tech companies – so don't expect any female whizz-kids, says Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

Between In the Loop (Armando Iannucci's Thick of It movie spin-off set against the Iraq war) and Veep, his sitcom starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a hapless American Vice-President, Iannucci pitched an idea to HBO about an internet startup. It was a show, he said, "about twentysomethings who'd got a very popular website, who are on the verge, potentially, of being billionaires". HBO commissioned a script and Iannucci wrote it, but the project was shelved after the 2008 financial crash. "We thought, 'Do people really want to watch a comedy about people loving being rich?" Iannucci told The New Yorker. "And then The Social Network came out and we thought, 'Oh. They do.'"

If 2008 seemed premature, the zeitgeist has most definitely arrived in 2014, HBO having in the meantime produced Silicon Valley, a new sitcom from Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge that will (ironically enough) be broadcast in a Sky Atlantic double bill with Veep when it begins on 16 July.

Dubbed "Entourage for geeks" and already recommissioned for a second season, Silicon Valley follows six twentysomething foot- soldiers in California's super-cluster of high-tech businesses. Jesse Eisenberg lookalike Thomas Middleditch takes the central role of Richard Hendriks, a shy programmer who has developed a music app called "Pied Piper", which nobody is interested in until it's discovered that it contains a revolutionary data compression algorithm potentially worth billions.

The show (co-created with Judge's King of the Hill writing partners John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, and the animator's first live-action comedy) follows these socially awkward geeks as they enter the cut-and-thrust jungle of venture capitalism. Among a universal set of positive reviews, Hollywood Reporter said: "HBO finds its best and funniest full-on comedy in years", while TV Guide found that these "socially maladroit posse of computer misfits every bit the comedy equal of The Big Bang Theory's science nerds."

The byte stuff: 'Silicon Valley' (HBO)

If Big Bang Theory, the long-running CBS sitcom about a pair of young physicists and their friends, and Channel 4's The IT Crowd were comedy outriders for the coming nerd culture, Silicon Valley marks a new maturation. And while television tends to treat geeks as comedy characters, US cable channel AMC's successor to the departing Mad Men, Halt and Catch Fire, sees them as heroic (and anti-heroic) protagonists worthy of a straight drama.

Set in Dallas in 1983, during the infancy of the personal computing industry, Halt and Catch Fire (the title refers to a fictitious machine code instruction that would cause the computer to crash) follows the entrepreneurs rushing to (illegally) clone the IBM PC. Lee Pace plays Joe MacMillan, a handsome, manipulative but effective salesman who forces a small Texan firm, Cardiff Electrical, into the competition to create a PC clone. Needing a techy guy to fulfil his ambitions, he draws geeky Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) into helping him reverse-engineer an IBM.

Joe and Gordon's relationship has been compared to that of Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak – but others have discerned fictional counterparts within the AMC drama stable: Mad Men's Don Draper and Breaking Bad's Walter White. Actually, a huge IBM mainframe computer became a plot driver (and harbinger of the future) in the last series of Mad Men when one was installed in the New York offices of Sterling Cooper and Partners.

Back on the West Coast, Silicon Valley is a milieu well known to Mike Judge from his own experiences of working there for a start-up company after graduating from the University of California with a major in physics. "It really felt like a cult," he says. "The people I met were like Stepford Wives. They were true believers in something, and I don't know what it was."

The show satirises the unimaginable wealth of some of these true believers, at a time when programmers have agents, and the 24-year-old CEO of Snapchat, Evan Spiegel, turns down a $3bn acquisition offer and reportedly dated Taylor Swift. Indeed, the first episode opens at a rooftop party thrown by the owners of a company that has just sold itself to Google for $200m. Kid Rock is the hired entertainment, performing to a handful of milling tech entrepreneurs who'd rather be talking about "per-centage points". As a boisterous self-made millionaire, Erlich (who allows the other software developers to stay at his "incubator" in return for 10 per cent of any future profits), says to his young lodgers: "Kid Rock is the poorest person here, except for you guys."

Erlich (played by stand-up comedian TJ Miller) is Silicon Valley's equivalent of Entourage's scene-stealing agent Ari Gold. As his charges dream up apps such as "NipAlert" (it gives users the location of a woman with erect nipples), Erlich wanders around in his "I Know HTML" T-shirt" (so much wittier than Topshop's "Geek" T-shirt) and dispensing self-serving homilies.

Judge provides a feast of "insider" observations, such as the hostility between software writers and the programmers, the disdain among techie folk for Steve Jobs and a remark that is put in the mouth of a Googlesque CEO when he says: "It's weird. They always travel in groups of five, these programmers. There's always a tall skinny guy, short skinny Asian guy, fat guy with a ponytail, some guy with crazy facial hair and then an east Indian guy. It's like they trade guys until they have the right group."

The comment underlines the absence of non-guys in Silicon Valley. In fact, the only female characters in the first two episodes are a lap dancer and a personal assistant. Don't let that put you off, because Silicon Valley is fresh and funny and if you don't know the meaning of terms like "multi-platform functionality" it really doesn't matter.

'Silicon Valley' starts on Wednesday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic