Silicon Valley just wrapped its debut season on HBO and despite an up-and-down inaugural season, the show has already been picked up for a second season.
Looking back at the first season, there were moments I thought Silicon Valley was on its way to becoming an elite show, one worthy of a large cult audience of fans. On the flip side, there were equally as many episodes and moments in which I found myself shaking my head and rolling my eyes thinking the show was extremely aloof in its mission to provide a comical, authentic, and somewhat authoritative look into the unique startup culture in Silicon Valley.
Right now, the Bay Area (you can’t say “Silicon Valley,” really… as the San Francisco tech scene 20 miles north is where much of the growth is now occurring) is experiencing what may end up being the largest boom (hopefully not a bubble) in the area’s well chronicled history. Because of this, the culture, demographics, and the area itself is rapidly changing as the tech scene amasses more and more 20-somethings with big dreams and ideas — all while displacing whatever semblance of diverse community withstood the surging housing prices of the 90s and 2000s.
At the same time, America’s interest in what exactly is going on here has perked up as a combination of social media, a robust tech blogging scene, and the hit movie The Social Network has led to a slew of new shows, documentaries, and books trying to distill the Silicon Valley experience. Having such an authoritative and authentic piece of media on what it’s like here is important to me. Several times I’ve gone to my alma mater in the midwest to do guest lectures trying to explain it all, hoping some would see it as their calling although making it VERY clear the area chews people up, spits them out, burns out mostly everyone, and is just expensive and hard to navigate professionally.
The lack of a “true” Silicon Valley film or show has gnawed at me to the point where one day I even outlined a first season of a show I’d one day want to write. The gist of it was was Entourage meets Mad Men. The thorough expose of work culture that Mad Men thrives on combined with not only the banter and comedy of Entourage, but also the personal career struggles and industry snark that really helped that show along.
I hoped Silicon Valley would be of that ilk. But ultimately — while I did find many aspects of it accurate in terms of the mechanics of funding, hiring, branding, certain personalties, etc. — the show just didn’t really come close to ringing true for myself and many others in terms of authenticity to the experience of starting a new company out here.
Below are five areas in which Silicon Valley missed its mark.
I have no issue with the genesis of Pied Piper, a way to compress files without degrading quality. I don’t care how many of the specifics of it are plausible or if the terminology and logic behind the idea were aloof. What does pain me though, is that the most exciting part of a startup is typically the formulation of the idea and the subsequent iterating on that concept at an early stage.
When founders talk about their startups, that’s almost always where they start. “I was working at ____ and I was miserable. I lived at ___ and was making ____ and I hated my life. And then one day it hit me while I was painfully trying to _____, what if there was a better way to ____? That’s how it started.”
From there, these stories branch off as they run through getting people involved, getting funding, making the product, and key strategy decisions. These are almost always GREAT stories and yet Silicon Valley gives us none of that. Richard just one day decided to do this. He lives for whatever reason at a hostel/incubator despite working at a thinly veiled Google which pays well. The product in its first iteration is essentially done before the show starts.
How did Richard think of the idea? How did he get involved with Erlich, the incubator, and how did he come up with the name? More importantly, who is Richard? What did he do at Hooli? Where did he go to college — if he did at all? How did he start coding? Where is he from? Does he have parents, and if so, do they have any idea whatsoever what he does, like many of our parents struggle with?
It’s unfortunate as this type of backstory shouldn’t really be backstory at all. It’s the beginning and often where the most soul searching, struggle, and craziness happens. Sadly, none of those early days are part of this Silicon Valley.
Showing people coding or even discussing coding is just not going to play well on television. That said, talking strategy, having heated debates, reviewing research, spitballing ideas, harping on the competition, and venting about other employees is not just a compelling part of the work culture here, but also in most industries. While there were a handful of plots involving the work and such, it was always segmented, dull, and not authentic. It lacked emotion, depth, authenticity, suspense, and drama.
That’s part of the reason I really enjoy aspects of Mad Men and, yes at times, Entourage as both of these shows did a great job showcasing the struggle, suspense, conflict and stress attached to working in volatile industries with volatile personalities.
In Silicon Valley, the work issues are largely just plot devices that come and go which usually just effect Richard, and potentially Jared and Erlich, but rarely spills over to the rest of the team. All work issues are usually isolated within a particular episode and are typically resolved and never referenced again. Meanwhile, there is little guidance as to the long term strategy, company morale, and toll on the personal lives of those involved.
The season finale — featuring a company breakthrough that started with an argument about how long it would take Erlich to jerk off the entire audience and ended with a barely explained, hastily constructed technological breakthrough which floored the technology world — was another example where the actual work that goes into a successful startup was largely glossed over. Again, an essential part of the culture and experience that is for the most part ignored entirely or too ridiculous to believe.
I wouldn’t say any of the characters are unbelievable. People out here can be insanely eccentric, as well as insanely boring, so none of the main characters get a red flag from me, nor do any of the specific castings bother me.
What does bother me is that Richard and the rest of the team just don’t come off like a founding team gung-ho to go against all logic by starting a new company amidst the sea of failed ideas and companies. Richard is almost certainly modeled after a mousier version of Mark Zuckerberg and while the character is familiar, this version is just way too timid and is oddly flanked for the most part with characters who illogically just default all high level decisions to him.
This is basically the equivalent of a basketball team where nobody wants the ball or wants to take a shot, with Erlich on the bench to put himself in. Yes, these characters all exist in real life out here, but usually not as a congregated team of early-stage founders.
Starting a company (and subsequently turning down million of dollars) takes balls and confidence. And while every episode falls into the same pattern — Richard is in over his head, he can’t do this, oh wait… a sudden surge of confidence, oh man… this little introvert is blossoming in front of our very eyes! — it’s just not that realistic to have the core founding team all being so lethargic and unenthusiastic about the challenge ahead.
The climate and demands on an early-stage company almost requires a team to be overconfident, audacious, focused, and oozing of enthusiasm to be successful, and almost all companies possess these attributes to the point where you almost secretly want them to be humbled.
Pied Piper doesn’t have that, and while it’s probably so we can more easily embrace the company and team as humble underdogs that seem over their heads, it’s just so far from the truth that for me and many others, you almost want to root against them knowing this dynamic would fail them in the real world.
Lack Of Authentic Silicon Valley Venues And References
It was a nice touch for the show to feature a dozen or so Silicon Valley icons and publications. Hooli, Gavin Belson, and Peter Gregory were also well constructed, given that they were completely fictitious.
But in light of that, not filming in the area — as well as a lot of aloof local references and jokes — hurt the show’s believability with the local audience here. These awkward moments were few and far between, but at times they were cringeworthy. A stripper that hates going to Palo Alto (makes no sense at all, in fact I would imagine a stripper being called to Palo Alto is a preferred gig), Hooli employees leaving the campus to go eat when free gourmet cafes are the norm, and glimpses of back alleys in San Jose and East Palo Alto, which were clearly filmed in another area to the trained eye.
These are just a few examples, and while they were easy to ignore, the amount of scenes that COULD have taken place at known locations were more frequent. Looking back, Entourage really thrived dropping the names of industry personalities, as well as filming many famous scenes at local Southern California locations. But when it came to Silicon Valley, we never see downtown Palo Alto, Stanford, Sand Hill Road, and the many famous conference centers and hotels around the area in addition to the bars, restaurants, and coffee shops where so much business takes place.
While filming locally would have been a nice touch, bypassing that — combined with the occasional flailing local references or aloof backdrop of a scene — only added another area in which the show failed to really showcase an authentic startup experience.
The Mike Judge Lens
I like Mike Judge’s work. I give him a lot of credit for getting Silicon Valley on the air, in addition to doing a surprisingly good job on accurately covering some of the more granular aspects, details, processes, and issues that affect startups. All that said, putting the Mike Judge lens on anything can be a bit too distorting, depending on the subject at hand and the intended end product.
All of Judge’s famed works center around entertaining eccentric characters, to the point where they’re largely exaggerated caricatures of plausible individuals. By and large, it’s an ingredient that is key in all of his successes. Milton from Office Space, Hank Hill’s motley crew of friends, and pretty much anyone from Beavis and Butt-head. The characters are not realistic, but they’re certainly entertaining.
I don’t know why I expected Judge to dial his lens down a bit for Silicon Valley. Although many characters were exaggerated, even some of the more eccentric ones were plausible personalities for this area. While this collection of characters all had something to offer to the show, and none were outside the margins of real individuals around here, the problem of having such an eccentric and wide group of individuals is that for the most part, they lack backstory, authenticity, personal growth, genuine reactions, and — more importantly — real depth.
This is also further compacted by the fact that you’re cramming a steep industry learning curve and large casts into a 30-minute show. That said, I rarely felt as if I couldn’t predict a character’s reaction or the outcome of an episode, given how predicable and one-dimensional the characters were for the most part.
Going back to Mad Men and the earlier years of Entourage (the show became quite predictable after a while), there was an element of randomness to it. It was genuinely hard to predict plot twists, and how characters would react to various professional and personal developments. You had intrigue in what would unfold next and enjoyed the shedding of characters’ known attributes, revealing layers and depth that you couldn’t predict and wouldn’t expect.
Maybe we’re just early on this front, but with one season in the books, I found that while the Judge lens on the startup eco-system helped with some cheap laughs, it hindered the show’s ability to connect with viewers on more serious emotional level. You essentially would never identify with any the characters or say “I know how that feels!” and when conveying the severe peaks and valleys of working in Silicon Valley, that’s a glaring pain-point for the show.
If I had to give the show’s first season a grade, I’d probably give it a C+ or B-. That’s not enough for me to turn my back on season two, but certainly not enough for me to recommend it to anyone. Most importantly, it just fell short of being a comprehensive and authentic showcasing of the world I know and one that is so hard to explain, recreate, or capture in a film or TV series.
Many shows have had lackluster inaugural seasons, and many startups’ first product or business plan were total shit before finding their stride. Silicon Valley could have gone wrong in dozens of different ways. The fact I’m only highlighting five is an indication it did more right than it did wrong and hopefully, like any good startup, 2.0 fixes many of the shortcomings of 1.0. Here is to hoping Silicon Valley can pivot as magically and seamlessly as Pied Piper does in the show.