HBO's Silicon Valley Can't Keep Up With Reality

Inside the San Francisco premiere party for the show's third season.

Last night, an investment bank and a venture capital firm co-hosted a premiere screening of a farcical premium cable show about tech companies. It sounds like the setup to a joke, but like on the show itself, it's not clear who gets the last laugh.

A few minutes before the crowd of industry insiders gathered at a San Francisco movie theater for a sneak peek at the first episode of Silicon Valley’s third season, news broke that Uber had settled two class-action lawsuits that could have cost the company its $50 billion business model. Meanwhile, across the country in New York City, Uber investor Shervin Pishevar was on a red carpet, posing next to Tom Hanks to celebrate Pishevar’s first turn as a movie producer. As the seat of capital and culture-shaping continues to inch north from Hollywood to Silicon Valley, it’s hard to stay on top of an industry constantly beta-testing the limits of its power.

Another reminder that tech truth can be stranger than fiction: a scene in the middle of the episode onscreen, when a promising startup reveals that its top secret tech project is (ba dum bump) just a Snapchat-like filter for adding 3D mustaches with names like The Sam Elliott and The Hitler. Earlier this week in the real world, Snapchat, which is valued at $16 billion, got in trouble for the boneheaded and utterly preventable decision to release a blackface filter of Bob Marley to celebrate 4/20.

None of these real-time footnotes made a difference to the audience in San Francisco, who cracked up — just as I did — with each new riff and pratfall. Where the show's first season focused on the trials of turning an idea into a company and the second on the trials of getting funded and off the ground, Season 3's major theme is regaining and retaining control.

In the first few episodes, Richard Hendricks, the brainy doofus at the helm of Pied Piper, the data compression startup that serves as Silicon Valley’s inanimate protagonist, meets his new nemesis: “Action” Jack Barker, the gray-haired CEO brought in to replace him. Unlike previous foes, Barker has a wider spectrum of emotions, all of which he employs to charm and defang Pied Piper’s employees. The biggest laugh of the night went to T.J. Miller's character, the proud wastrel Erlich Bachman, who runs over what he thinks is a deer, only to realize that his victim was in fact an experiment from Stanford Robotics, played by Boston Dynamics' lovable kickable robot.

From the get-go, Silicon Valley has emphasized its commitment to this type of detail. The people involved with the show have repeatedly cast their challenge as a choice between broad strokes and pixel-to-pixel verisimilitude, and they choose door number two. Mike Judge and co. seem very happy with their decision, and the chummy vibe at last night’s screening was a testament to the benefits: For tech personalities, getting tapped to fact-check or offer fodder for the show is almost as much of a bragging right as scoring one of the show’s many cameos.

But mutual admiration has also put Silicon Valley in a slippery position. It’s a biting satire suspiciously beloved by the people it’s supposed to be skewering. And it's a hyperrealistic, exhaustively vetted show that still manages to have some massive blind spots: a gender problem almost as stark as the one in the industry it parodies, a puerile sense of humor, and a bizarre devotion to the myth of the boy genius loner, to name but a few.

After the screening, there was a short question-and-answer session with some of the cast members, creator Mike Judge, and ex-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, who worked as a consultant on the show after he was nudged out of Twitter. (It’s a plausible career move considering he used to do improv comedy at Second City, although Costolo made a wisecrack about how the mighty have fallen.) Onstage, Costolo was asked to name a couple instances where he had to steer the show’s direction back to reality. Costolo said it was the other way around. “Most of the time it was me saying, ‘No, you can go way past that. They do far worse things than this!’” he explained. “You can go much, much farther.”

You can, but it may hurt your faves. Later in the Q&A when Judge was asked about the most memorable feedback he’s gotten, he pointed to a series of glowing tweets from venture capitalist Marc Andreessen after the pilot. “That was really cool for us, I think,” Judge said. “Somebody who is that much a part of Silicon Valley liking the show and just the details he mentioned were — that felt good.” Judge wouldn’t be the first man to fall under the @pmarca thrall.

@MikeJudge Pitch perfect :-). Well done! And yes, I see that exact group of five all the time...

Disclaimer: All quotes I am tweeting today are from Mike Judge's TV show "Silicon Valley", not from my own mouth :-).

And besides, Silicon Valley is satirizing a subculture that can already sound like a joke. Zach Woods plays Jared Dunn, Pied Piper's maternal caretaker. Woods said the show has a similar dynamic to Veep, HBO’s political gaffe-fest that will also premiere its new season on Sunday. “I think a lot of these shows that parody worlds are often out-parodied by reality,” he said during a press junket earlier that day hosted at the office of a PR firm.

Woods was sitting on a couch next to Martin Starr, who plays Bertram Gilfoyle, a wickedly deadpan developer and Satanist. Both actors pointed to one scene in the upcoming season that they found particularly hard to swallow — until they saw it unfold on the news — in which Pied Piper makes a promotional video. The show’s creators were trying to parody a bizarre Facebook ad from 2012 called “Chairs are like Facebook.” Starr and Woods thought audiences wouldn’t buy it, until they saw Uber’s delusional take on “Bits and Atoms.”

The screening was held at the New Mission Theater, the San Francisco outpost of an indie cinema chain known for serving patrons food and drink while they watch. On the marquee outside, the words “New Mission” are spelled out in neon green lights visible up and down the street.

For the rapidly gentrifying Mission District, the “new” part is painfully obvious. The theater sits right next to Vida, a condo development loathed by some locals for its gaudy design and gaudier prices. On one edge of the block is El Techo de Lolinda, a luxe Latin American food restaurant perpetually mobbed by those seeking its premium margaritas and rooftop vantage point. On the other edge of the block, next to Vida, is a burned-out building with a Popeyes Chicken on the ground floor and the remnants of more than a dozen rent-controlled apartments above. (The police did not suspect it, but neighbors continue to blame arson for the four-alarm fire last year.) Across the street from the theater is Doc's Clock, a dive bar and treasured San Francisco institution where the bouncer has been known to wear a “Die Techie Scum” shirt. In February, the property owner said she would not be renewing the bar’s lease.

The night of the premiere, the block was dotted in fliers blaming displacement on the influx of tech money. One said “TRICKLE DOWN DEVASTATION” and featured Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky's bloody, logo-adorned heads on pikes.

The show has yet to venture into San Francisco’s affordable housing crisis, or San Francisco at all. There is a nod to the housing market in the second episode of the upcoming season, but the butt of the joke ends up being a hippie who was priced out, not the evicters. Which is fine: This is a half-hour sitcom, not a morality play. If you’re hoping for Sunday night TV to make the world a better place, you’ll be waiting a long time. San Francisco's housing crisis is real, but it’s not particularly funny.

The bigger bummer of a missed opportunity is the show’s treatment of gender. Viewers who gave up on Season 1’s disappointingly sexist casting probably didn’t stick around to see how Season 2 responded directly to that criticism in the form of Carla Walton, a stellar engineer with no fucks to give who alternately intimidates and gaslights her male co-workers at Pied Piper. But as with the short-lived Donald Glover arc on Girls, interest seems to have waned. After actor Christopher Welch’s death, the show hired Suzanne Cryer to play Laurie Bream, the managing partner who replaced Welch’s take on Peter Thiel, and perhaps that was enough for them. (Although Bream’s character can come off like Thiel with a vagina, basically, apparently Marissa Mayer was “one of” the inspirations for the part.)

More alarming than the casting is the boys club vibe that the show can’t seem to shake. In first three episodes, there is one shockingly graphic and entirely superfluous scene that seems like the kind of sophomoric prank that got pushed through the censors because you wanted to impress your friends. Like cast member T.J. Miller, the show can be a bit of a loose cannon. Since this season seems more tightly focused on what’s happening inside Pied Piper, it might mean less punching up and more flailing around.

After the Q&A was over, the crowd exited the theater to sample sliders, deviled eggs with trout, bowls of fries, and fried green tomato pizza, leaning on doors and banisters and garbage cans to balance their plates and drinks. The party spilled into Bear vs. Bull, the red-light-bathed bar on the New Mission Theater’s ground floor. PR reps made a permeable barrier around the talent, while men in dress slacks giddily waited their turn and hopefully remembered to turn off their smartphone flash.

A venture capitalist who was milling away from the selfie line said he preferred escapist television like Games of Thrones to Silicon Valley, but he had seen the third season premiere twice. The level of razzing on the show made sense to him. “It’s the kind of biting we are with each other,” he said, comparing it to watching episodes of L.A. Law as a kid without knowing anything about being a lawyer. The show never promised “meta social commentary,” he said. “There’s not going to be a ‘very special episode’ of Silicon Valley about the 1099 economy.”

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