I’m just going to come out and say it: “nerds” (and that term has become incredibly muddled over the past decade) don’t get enough credit in pop culture. When they’re not the outright butt of the joke, they’re stereotypes. Very few shows strike the right balance of humor and pathos for the socially awkward. There’s nothing wrong with making fun of nerdiness; as a bit of a nerd myself, there’s a hell of a lot to make fun of.
Yet writers and directors often seem to forget that these nerds, like every other character on a show, are just that: characters. Just like any characters, they need to be well-rounded. They need to have serious emotional or dramatic needs. Being a nerd can be a part of that need, but it can’t be the sole defining quality. We need to latch on to these characters, to see the world through their eyes, as we’re laughing with or at them.
Enter HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” the newest show from “Office Space” director and “King of the Hill” creator Mike Judge. The show centers around Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), a young programmer working for what essentially amounts to Google (the show calls the company Hooli) who leaves the company to establish his own start-up. That’s the bare-bones plot of the show, and to say more would give away a large amount of what’s making the show interesting. “Silicon Valley” is a show that strives to take down the vapidity, the ruthlessness, and the often mind-baffling pretension that comes with making it in the tech bubble.
“Silicon Valley” is a show that could have been irritatingly “relevant.” It could have name-dropped tech giants left and right. There could have been an episode on “2048.” But there isn’t. That the show is set in the hub of the tech industry is clearly important to what Judge is trying to do, but it could just as easily be about farming as it could be about Farmville. Like any good comedy, the setting is significant, but it comes down to the characters.
And these characters are, unsurprisingly, nerds. Even stereotypes. They struggle with social interaction, they have very specific and passionate interests, and yes, they’re uncomfortable with sex. But ultimately, they’re characters that are being explored more as people than as set-pieces. And frankly, they’re funny as hell and rarely at their own expense.
Kumail Nanjiani of “Portlandia” fame shines in delivering a character that I’d love to see explored further; he’s equally as sarcastic as he is sympathetic. Martin Starr, who viewers may recognize from “Party Down” and “Freaks and Geeks,” is a weird, distant Satanist (I’d like to see the character explored, but maybe not that part). Middleditch portrays Hendricks with an air of quiet anxiety, as he struggles to find confidence but also with how to open a bank account as a corporation rather than an individual. These are all wholly unique, fleshed-out characters, even in only the three episodes that have aired.
For a show about nerds, it’s odd that the closest comparison I can think of is “Entourage.” “Silicon Valley” does, in part, suffer from one of “Entourage’s” biggest problems in its excessive aimlessness; the show’s worst moments consist of a bunch of dudes talking awkwardly about nothing, not in a entertaining “Seinfeld” way, but with an overt, often annoyingly undeserved, sense of machismo. Some of these moments work better than others; Nanjiani’s delivery of the phrase “snack dick” (and I really don’t want to give any more of the joke away) literally made me spit Twinkie all over my computer. But an argument about tech company names, which essentially boils down to the fact that successful companies all have names you could call out during sex, feels a bit unnecessary.
In the best-case scenario, “Silicon Valley” blazes a vibrant comic trail. These are characters with oodles of potential. Mike Judge, Thomas Middleditch, and company have something unique on their hands. It’s all about where they take it from here. Hopefully, “Silicon Valley” won’t become “Entourage” for nerds.
Because “Entourage” sucks.