Silicon Valley Series Premiere Review: “Minimum Viable Product” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Mike Judge has been more successful on the small screen than on the big one. Compare the huge success of Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill to the cult status of Office Space and outright obscurity of Idiocracy and Extract and you’ll see what I mean. Sure, he flopped on TV with his last show, The Goode Family, but in light of how enjoyable the first episode of Silicon Valley is, that misstep can be forgotten.
The problem with Judge as a screenwriter for movies is that he seems entirely unable to write a third act. With TV, he doesn’t have to. There isn’t the expectation of making the story fit into a conventional three act movie structure. He is free to focus on his strengths, which are memorable characters and an absolutely brilliant sense of social satire.
Both of those strengths are already present in spades in Silicon Valley, which bodes well for the show. Throw a really strong ensemble cast into the mix, and it seems like a recipe for success. There are some talented, under-appreciated actors at the core of this series, and it will be great to see what they can do with their characters. While it isn’t entirely clear what role all of the characters will play based on the first episode, hopefully they will all be brought to the foreground at various points in the show’s run.
The obvious protagonist here is Richard Hendricks, played by Thomas Middleditch. Middleditch might be the least well-known among the main cast, his highest profile TV appearance in the U.S. so far having been in a minor role in season nine of The Office. He is instantly great as Richard, though, and makes him a heart-breakingly likeable character very early on.
Why heart-breakingly? Because it’s obvious that in the cutthroat tech world that Judge has set up around him, he is in for a very difficult time. Richard is painfully shy but brilliant programmer, possibly registering somewhere on the autism spectrum but that is never really spelled out. Thank goodness for that, too, because autistic geniuses are a dime a dozen on TV these days. It’s easy to forget that there are plenty of shy, introverted geniuses who do not qualify as autistic.
The first episode is very much focused on setting up Richard as the protagonist and getting the plot in motion. As such, most of the other characters get short shrift. That’s OK, because with an ensemble cast this big it would have been too much too soon to try to clearly define all the characters right out of the gate. We do get to see a good deal of T.J. Miller as the Sean Parker-esque Erlich, who houses Richard and a group of other programmers in his “incubator” in return for 10% of the profit on anything they produce there. Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, and Josh Brener mostly occupy the margins of the episode, offering little but the promise of future involvement from three very funny comedic actors.
It is obviously a very bro-heavy cast, with no women making up its core group. The only notable female presence in episode one is Monica, the assistant to eccentric billionaire venture capitalist Peter Gregory. Her presence almost immediately seems set up for her to be a future love interest for Richard, so it does not seem likely that Silicon Valley will be passing the Bechdel test anytime soon. That is somewhat disappointing, but will likely be excused with the argument that the tech industry is disproportionately male, so the show is only portraying reality.
That argument only gets the show so far, though. Perhaps Monica will grow into a stronger role in the future, helping to guide Richard’s new start-up company and thus at least providing the show with one strong female lead. Failing that, Silicon Valley is going to need to find another way to get a better gender balance going on.