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History of TV: The Rise (and Fall) of 'Silicon Valley'

April 1, 2021
3 min read time

Silicon Valley is a screenwriter’s dream when it comes to learning how to craft a pilot with a great hook. Formulaic in the best way, the show has all the elements of a hit: empathetic characters with a clear goal we can get behind, insurmountable obstacles that keep us tuning back in to see how it all plays out, and that ironic touch of humor.

A parody of the real Silicon Valley — the rise and fall of companies, startup culture, and quirky personalities — HBO’s reincarnation ran for six hilarious seasons, following fictional programmer Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his friends on their journey to realizing Pied Piper.

Full-circle storytelling

The series set-up is so crystal clear right from the get-go. Despite an ensemble cast, Hendricks is the clear protagonist. It’s his journey we’re following as his dream (to create a music app, Pied Piper) is also clearly illustrated right off the bat. When apparent success is offered to him what feels like moments later, the stakes are also set up: Take the money and wonder what could’ve been with his “baby,” or take less money and develop the app into something entirely new that could really help people.

In the show’s finale, we flash forward 10 years in a documentary-style episode to glimpse how the Pied Piper team ended up, juxtaposed with the real-time crisis the team faces as their final Pied Piper incarnation threatens global security. It feels like an inevitable end to the “compression algorithm” that Hendricks created. It was meant to be the best; unstoppable, and it was. And so the man that created it had to be the one to take it down in the end. It’s a lovely thing in current cancel culture to see a show wrap up so neatly.

Silicon Valley's co-executive producer-writer-director Alec Berg (Barry, Curb Your Enthusiasm) said it best to Deadline on the show’s conclusion in 2019: “A lot of the discussion [surrounded] what do the characters think that they want versus what do they actually want, and what do we know that they want … We love our characters and we want them to end up happy, but what is that? What is happiness? Is happiness a billion-dollar company or is happiness something else?”

Meta-structure

The natural progression of the Pied Piper software and company transitions within each season arc mimic that of what one might imagine a real startup could go through in Silicon Valley: From the hottest idea on the market with eager investors, to untouchable within a day should the wrong person get involved, scandal erupt, or mistakes be made. The inherent obstacles to creating game-changing software also create wonderful obstacles the characters must face. From simple logistics to questions of morality, Pied Piper rose, pivoted and eventually fell — as did a lot of those involved with it.

Silicon Valley wasn’t content to be simply satirical commentary on what that elusive Northern California tech mecca was, but aimed to be relevant by tackling issues reality faced at the time of airing: company politics, the rise of Bitcoin, and personal privacy issues. Just like the real-world tech industry, Silicon Valley attempted to predict where the market was going and what would matter most to its viewers.

Thematic characters

Based on co-creator and executive producer-writer-director Mike Judge’s (Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill, Office Space) own experience working at a startup in Silicon Valley, the characters that populate Silicon Valley aren’t too far a stretch of the imagination. Not unlike the nerds of The Big Bang Theory or humor of The Office that gave culture-place comedies wide appeal, the characters that populate Silicon Valley also feel somewhat stock despite being based in reality. They represent archetypes, designed to drive the story.

The series opens on Hendricks and his friends living rent-free in Silicon Valley; for the low price of a small stake in their company, whatever it is they develop while in millionaire Erlich Bachman’s (T.J. Miller) incubator. Along with Dinesh Chugtai (Kumail Nanjiani) and Bertram Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), Hendricks builds Pied Piper beyond his expectations — right up until they fall. Meanwhile, his programmer best friend “Big Head” (Josh Brener) coasts by, yet somehow manages to become the president of Stanford. There’s also the villainous boss (Matt Ross as Gavin Belson), the voice of reason/suck-up (Zach Woods as Jared), the loyal Monica Hall (Amanda Crew), and the myriad of unique investors and those who try to undermine Pied Piper. Here’s looking at you, Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang).

In retrospect

Even Rotten Tomatoes certified Silicon Valley as fresh on a regular basis. And while the show’s six seasons gave us plenty to love, solidified by multiple Best Television Show — Comedy Golden Globe® and Primetime Emmy® Award for Outstanding Comedy nominations, the comedy only took home statues for satellite categories. It’s hard not to draw yet another parallel between its real-world appeal and that of the not-so-fictional struggle of the characters. For six seasons they were awesome, just maybe not quite the best, but that doesn’t make them any less relevant. It’s worth a watch, and even more so if you’re a screenwriter wanting to break down comedy to study from the ground up.

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