“Silicon Valley” has quietly become one of the cornerstone shows of this TV era. Now that it’s back for season five without T.J. Miller, it’s become apparent that the show has real legs. It’s pioneering a new genre: the entrepreneurial tech serial comedy. (Try saying that five times fast.)
This new genre goes back at least 11 years to the summer of 2007, when a little show called “Mad Men” premiered on AMC. That probably seems like an odd point of origin for what most people would describe as essentially a comedy.
Despite having radically different formats, “The Big Bang Theory” is the more natural comparison than the commercial, critical, and cultural behemoth that was “Mad Men.” After all, isn’t “Silicon Valley” ultimately about laughing at socially inept nerds, whereas “Mad Men” was essentially a high-class, sexy soap opera? The parallels between these two radically different shows would be completely invisible if it were not for another show from AMC that is no longer on the air: “Halt and Catch Fire.”
“Halt and Catch Fire” only lasted four seasons, and despite being one of the greatest TV shows of all time, it was culturally almost invisible. It clearly was designed to be AMC’s follow-up to “Mad Men.” The parallels are obvious: A period drama dealing primarily with the complex interpersonal relationships of a group of flawed yet brilliant people connected through a particular kind of business. But HCF was better in almost every way.
Let Me Explain That
The opening was brief, yet perfectly designed to convey the show’s intellectual content while engaging 1980s nostalgia. The characters were dramatic and intelligent. Its scope was epic, spanning decades of the most intense tech growth era. It played on one of the great tech partnership rivalries by blowing Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs into “Citizen Kane”-level personalities with the characters Gordon Clark and Joe MacMillian.
The female characters usually managed to upstage their male counterparts with passion and creativity. It didn’t have the tragedy, mystique, or sex appeal of “Mad Men.” Yet HCF’s meager 40 episodes tell a much tighter, more compelling saga than MM’s meandering, bloated 92.
At its best, HCF combined the truly artistic side of technological innovation with breathless melodrama. The four leads often seemed more like emo renaissance masters than CEOs and coders. That is probably where it faltered with audiences.
We’ve all come to realize that nerds now run the world. The kids who were bullied in high school can now take down government infrastructure with some clicks on a keyboard. But romanticizing these “people” just seems to be beyond us. We can believe that mafiosos are tragic Shakespearean characters while watching “The Godfather,” “The Sopranos,” and “Boardwalk Empire.” But tech guys? HCF strained credulity for some.
This is why “Silicon Valley” is such a brilliant show. From day one, it embraced the fact that tech is not inherently romantic. Real tech geniuses and the glorious guru world of TED talk culture are miles apart. For every Jobs, there’s a million Wozniaks—not because Woz was a dime a dozen, but because the invisible Wozniaks are what really make it all work.
The Hilarity of Inflexible Egos
That doesn’t diminish the impact an artistic, “spiritual” CEO can have on a company. But as with most things, the reality is not romantic. It is very down to earth, nuts and bolts, math and hard work. That sort of reality in an honest portrayal of the industry will have much more comedy to it than romance or tragedy.
As the great John Cleese once said, comedy flows from the inflexibility of the ego. Actually, so does tragedy. When Michael Scott insists he’s a good boss despite diverse evidence to the contrary, it makes us laugh. But when Hamlet insists on revenge, it makes us weep. The circumstance determines the nature of the thing—and the circumstances of “Silicon Valley” are highly primed for hilarious ego inflexibility.
For one thing, men tend to be funnier than women. This is not a compliment. Human females tend to have high social and emotional intelligence, but males tend to lack these things. If the expanding definition of the autistic spectrum is not waylaid, it will eventually encompass the entire male sex. Men simply do not think or act the same way women do, and since our society normalizes the female soul over and against the male we will come to see all men as abnormal eventually.
So while lady comedians can be at least as funny (if not even more humorous, i.e. Carol Burnett) as men, they are not in themselves generally as funny or tragic. The female ego is simply more flexible than the male. If it were not so, none of us would be here. And the smarter the man, often the less flexible his ego.
The Funny Ridiculousness of the Creative Male Mind
This is the genius of “Silicon Valley.” It completely embraces the absolute and utter ridiculousness that is the creative male mind. There’s no romance or tragedy, but there is hilarity and blind luck. There is much inflexibility of multiple egos. Thankfully the first few episodes of season five prove the show does not need Miller to thrive. In some ways, it benefits from his absence.
T.J. is extremely funny. Some of the best moments of the first four seasons involved his idiosyncratic narcissistic humor. But he was never what made the show work. The show worked because it was always faithful to all its characters and setting.
This created the constant addictive serial of success versus failure. Every other episode or so, the gang would essentially be on the verge of implosion, and something would bring them back. Once seen, this formulaic nature cannot be unseen. But not all formulas are bad.
The ongoing saga of Pied Piper is engaging on its own merits. Episodes often end with delicious cliffhangers. Combine that with almost constant humorous incidents, and you have a recipe for highly addictive TV. Miller added to the comic aspects, but since his character was generally unsympathetic he didn’t add much to the serially addictive nature.
The upshot is that this show could have been conceived as a pure drama instead of a comedy, and the story would have been just as addictive. It would have been “Halt and Catch Fire” in a contemporary setting.
What Makes These Shows So Compelling
What really made “Mad Men” and “Halt and Catch Fire” compelling as stories was the constant resolution of problems. That is the essence of all story. A problem is presented to a protagonist, then the protagonist resolves the problem.
In “Mad Men” it was advertising problems, and “Halt and Catch Fire” it was technological. Both are creative problems, but the solidity and practicality of technology made HCF more compelling as a narrative, whereas the problems of advertising are more ineffable and connected to character more than narrative.
Ultimately, what drives “Silicon Valley” is the drama of entrepreneurial advancement, risk, and reward. The comedic aspects are really just icing on a fundamentally delicious cake. While Miller may have been the funniest character on the show, he certainly was not the only source of humor. Almost all the characters are very funny.
In fact, Amanda Crew’s Monica might be the only straight man in this cast of clowns. Like every great straight man, she is the anchor that keeps the whole thing from completely taking off into outer space. She is the Carl Reiner to this crew of Mel Brookses.
Compared to HBO’s other big comedy, “Veep,” “Silicon Valley’s” inherently serialized appeal becomes even more apparent. While “Veep” is very funny, what happens from episode to episode is not compelling in its own right. It’s just a comedy with a political veneer.
“Veep” is not a funny version of “House of Cards,” while “Silicon Valley” is essentially a humorous version of “Halt and Catch Fire.” Or maybe HCF was a dramatic version of “Silicon Valley.” After all, “Silicon Valley” did start several months before, and has already outlasted it.