Back in 2013, Beavis and Butt-head creator and Office Space director Mike Judge was in a bit of a rut. His underrated Sunday-night animated series King of the Hill had finally come to an end after 13 seasons; his last feature film, Extract, barely made a dent at the box office; and his follow-up animated series, The Goode Family, only lasted 13 episodes. But that same year, Judge, along with King of the Hill writers John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, created an HBO pilot taking some cues from Judges experience working in Silicon Valley tech companies in the late 1980s, updated for the current boom.
The result, Silicon Valley, is the most incisive and eerily authentic reflection of Bay Area professional culture since David Finchers The Social Network depicted the rise of Facebook.
The series begins with Richard Hendrix (Thomas Middleditch) pulling double duty as an employee at a tech conglomerate called Hooli and at a startup incubator run by one-time successful entrepreneur Erlich Bachmann (T.J. Miller). Richards company is Pied Piper, initially conceived of as a useless music copyright service. But buried within his app is the most advanced file compression algorithm ever conceived, which inspired a bidding war for Richards company between Hoolis egomaniacal CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) and eccentric billionaire investor Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch). The show then follows the meteoric rise and pitfalls of Pied Piper as it progresses from fledgling startup with tons of promise to the Next Big Thing.
But what is most vital about the series is the complete lack of reverence for the industry it skewers. At every turn, Richards companywhich includes Erlich, lovably off-putting CFO Jared Dunn (Zach Woods), and programmers Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr)could simply hit the big time, achieve success, and then turn everyone into loathsome archetypes. Instead, they consistently get in the way of an easy route to a huge fortune, while others trip and fall into money while doing little to no work. At a time when Silicon Valley investment has shifted the paradigm of professional existence in the Bay Area, Judges HBO series is the one consistent comedic check against the pomposity and lazy repetition of the industrys self-aggrandizing rhetoric. On the verge of this Sunday’s third season finale, heres how to get caught up on Pied Pipers journey so far.
Number of Seasons: 3 (27 episodes)
Time Requirements: The entire series takes 14 hours to watch (including Sundays finale), so if you wanted to pull off a marathon, its possible to watch one season per day and get caught up over the weekend. Otherwise, watch a season per week on HBO Go and get fully caught up by mid-July.
Where to Get Your Fix: HBO Go, HBO Now, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Video
Best Character to Follow: Every single character in the main ensemble of Pied Piper employees is an extremely gifted comedic performer. But Zach Woods does something special as Jared Dunn, the beating heart and soul of Pied Piper, which is made up of mostly cynical, callous founders. Dinesh and Gilfoyle need to bounce off each other to bring out their best. Erlich is too grotesque and arrogant to inspire much sympathy even when he gets humbled. But Jared is like a wounded birdyou cant help but love him and want him to recover, spread his wings, and soar into the sky. He offers the best one-liners, endures the most psychological painwhether being stranded on an automated island alone, or ousted from his own condo by a viciously negligent tenantand still offers heartfelt encouragement to Richard as the company goes through troubled times.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:
Season 1: Episode 5, Signaling Risk Most of Silicon Valley’s detail-oriented approach to life in the Bay Area is so accurate it would make anyone who grew up in the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland tri-city area homesick. But this episode, in which Erlich tries to convince a prominent convicted-felon-turned-graffiti-artist to design a new logo for Pied Piper, is surprisingly tone-deaf when dealing with two neighboring suburbswealthy Palo Alto, which contains Stanford University, and the more impoverished East Palo Alto. (At least it attempts to rectify the problem of a terrible company logo.)
Season 2: Episode 3, Bad Money In the wake of Christopher Evan Welchs tragic death, Silicon Valley needed to fill the void of billionaire characters modeled after actual entrepreneurs. Peter Gregory was allegedly based on Peter Thiel (of the Hulk Hogan v. Gawker lawsuit), but Season 2 brought in Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopoulos), a bracingly arrogant investor who made most of his money putting radio on the Internet (in case it wasnt clear enough that hes based on Mark Cuban). Hanneman appears as a savior to Pied Piper, preventing the need to sell the company to Hooli and offering a way to contest the legal battle over intellectual property. But while Diamantopoulos does his job to make Hanneman as repulsive as possible, it makes rooting for Pied Pipers success much more difficult. Hes not a mentor, and hes not a shrewd investor. Hes just a lucky guy who got very rich and now believes he can do anything he wants. Thats a great satirical point to make about Silicon Valley. It just made Silicon Valley less compelling to watch.
Season 3: Episode 5, The Empty Chair Richard, still sour about not having his title as CEO restored, accidentally rants about his main investor Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer) to the lead reporter of a widely-read tech blog. The problem with the whole plot is that the reporter records the conversation without Richards knowledge within the confines of a private investment firm. California requires two-party consent to recordings. Its such a giant oversight for a show that prides itself on meticulous verisimilitude that it causes an otherwise fine episode to come tumbling down.
Season 3: Episode 6, Bachmanity Insanity Did you know that nerdy tech guys are awkward around girls? This episode of Silicon Valley is all about beating that dead horsewhich isnt great for a show that struggles mightily to skewer the rampant sexism of Silicon Valley while insisting the lack of female cast members is a necessary reflection of the actual industry. Richard flips out on a girl he likes because she writes code in a way that he finds to be reckless. Dinesh has a crush on an Estonian coder Pied Piper hired to work remotely, but when he improves the video chat function in the companys communication software, she fakes having a boyfriend instead of admitting she doesnt find him attractive.
Seasons/Episodes You Cant Skip:
Season 1: Episode 1, Minimum Viable Product Aside from Jared, who doesnt get fully sketched out until he joins Pied Piper in the second episode, the pilot strongly establishes every key member of the soon-to-be startup. Richard gets pushed around by brogrammers at Hooli while not realizing the potential goldmine of a compression algorithm he has within his app. Dinesh and Gilfoyle bicker constantly. Erlich believes himself a benevolent genius investor with his squalid house. Even Big Heads future arc as a completely oblivious coattail-riding stooge, gets started here.
Season 1: Episode 3 Articles of Incorporation Its difficult to overstate just how much Silicon Valley lost when Christopher Evan Welch died during the first season. As Peter Gregory, he played a brilliant man with shrewd investment acumen who could offer sage advice to a fledgling company because he had gone through that process himself. He was also a deeply eccentric comedic presence, obsessing over Burger King menu items and building an automated private island, and the other half of the billionaire rivalry with Gavin Belson that loomed over the early days of Pied Piper in the first season. Its clear that Judge had some kind of plan to pit two tech rivals who had once worked in the same garage against each other, but sadly that plot could never come to fruition and the show had to find another path forward.
Season 1: Episode 8, Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency The single best episode of Silicon Valley is this second half of a two-part finale set at TechCrunch Disrupt, where Pied Piper competes with other startups despite already having seed funding. Gavin Belson debuts competing compression technology titled Nucleus, reverse-engineered from Pied Pipers platform using code leftover from Richards time at Hooli. But facing total destruction and utter failure, the team begins a flight of fancy about Erlich … lets just say, manipulating data in the audience during his presentation. That bit of inspirationwhich mocks every accidental genius brainstorm in the playbook of corporate successleads to an exceedingly vulgar tangent that Richard uses to entirely rebuild Pied Pipers central goal of data compression. The ensuing presentation is the only time Silicon Valley has achieved edge-of-your-seat suspense while delivering gut-busting one-liners.
Season 2: Episode 4, The Lady Nelson Big Head Bighetti (Josh Brener) is the saddest of the sadsacks on Silicon Valley. When he didnt fit in at Pied Piper early in the first season, he took a lucrative job at Hooli which was offered to him out of spite by Gavin Belson. But when he proves unable to help reverse-engineer Pied Pipers algorithm, he gets frozen out of all tasksuntil hes mysteriously promoted to Co-head Dreamer of Hooli XYZ (modeled after the Google X team responsible for moonshot ideas) as a way to bolster Hoolis intellectual property lawsuit against Richard and Pied Piper. Hooli even goes so far as to lock up a WIRED profile on the new wunderkind.
Season 2: Episode 10, Two Days of the Condor The major arc of the second season is the legal battle between Hooli and Pied Piper, as Gavin Belson attempts to wrestle the compression technology away from Richard over a technicalityhe once used a Hooli computer to work on his app while his personal laptop was being repaired. But due to all the legal digging during a binding arbitration to decide the fate of the company, a judge discovers an illegal non-compete clause in Hoolis employment contract language. The unexpected victory isnt the best partthats Richard fighting against a dying phone battery to stop the rest of his employees from deleting all of Pied Pipers data, which Richard ordered when he believed the lawsuit was impossible to win.
Season 3: Episode 2, Two in the Box Stephen Tobolowsky is one of the most prolific and talented character actors of his generation, and hes stellar as the new Pied Piper CEO Jack Barker. A business executive with a proven track record of wild success, he tries to maneuver the company to satisfy the engineering team, led by Richard, but also make a ton of money by shifting the company away from its initial goal of data compression. The introduction of a sales team is a great oneit shows an inkling of progress as Richard has to interact with competing ideologies in order to continue Pied Pipers success. Plus, the wildly different attitude a sales department brings to a company of computer engineers offers many opportunities for ridiculously mismatched interactions.
Season 3: Episode 4, Maleant Data Systems Solutions The most brilliant move so far in the new season was Richard and his engineering team figuring out a way to secretly work on their desired platform while also delivering Jack Barkers bare-bones, functionally boring box to sell to data centers. But that all goes up in flames when Richard trips and spills all the information in front of a sales rep, who immediately shares the information with Barker. It creates real tension within the companybut once again, theres a stroke of dumb luck. By acquiring a company seeking to do the same thing as Pied Piper, Belson accidentally gives value to Richards company and gives him the leverage to prevent Jack Barkers agenda from moving forward.
Season 3: Episode 8, Bachmans Earnings Over-Ride It would be insanely difficult to fill out a power ranking of all the characters on Silicon Valley, but T.J. Miller takes the spotlight more often than most. Sometimes, its through the sheer imagination of his insults. Other times, its because of his unexpected humility. After a horrendous attempt to take Big Heads money and form a newly opulent startup incubator, Erlich is forced to sell his Pied Piper shares to cover his debts, and finally shift from sideline board member who functions as an albatross to someone with a day-to-day role as director of PR. Its a role naturally suited to Erlich, since he loves talking loudly about himself, and by extension Pied Piper.
Why You Should Binge:
Silicon Valley has a problem of taking two steps forward and one step back. In its efforts to slow down the progress of Pied Piper to prolong the amount of time the show can make jokes, it enters a vicious cycle of never rewarding supposedly smart characters for their achievements. Sometimes thats hilariouslike the plan to circumvent Jack Barker blowing up in Richards face within seconds. But other times it seems like an infinite number of unnecessary hurdles are being thrown up to prevent the show from getting the company up and running so it can enter a different realm of satire. Perhaps its because Judge doesnt want to move too quickly into the same office-driven subject matter he covered in Office Space, but when doled out week after week, that can be frustrating. Binging the show eliminates some of that pattern, because viewers can get to all the good jokes without having to wait.
Best Scene—”Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency”
There is no other scene in the entirety of Silicon Valley that can more reliably inspire laughter than the brainstorming session in Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency. It includes all the major cast members, and every single one of them gets a laugh-out-loud momentJareds interjection about girth, Dinesh and Gilfoyle creating data abbreviations for all the lurid calculations, Richards exasperated reaction when the magic moment clicks into place, Erichs response to an interviewer immediately after the victorious presentation. The soundtrack is perfect, just some clinking piano and drawn-out strings that make it seem as profound as possible while also spending nearly four minutes on the most elaborate dick joke ever constructed.
Silicon Valley evaded a suitable satire of its culture for far too long, and Mike Judge was the perfect creator to come up with the workplace comedy to take down every aspect of the anointed startup narrative.
If You Liked Silicon Valley You’ll Love: Most of the other great things Mike Judge has created, from Office Space to the frighteningly prescient and depressingly cynical Idiocracy.