Genre: TV (comedy)
Premise: A group of young struggling tech entrepreneurs find their fortunes turned upside-down when one of them hits on a genius new way to compress data.
About: Spearheaded by one of the funniest writers ever, Mike Judge, “Silicon Valley” is the latest half-hour show coming to HBO. Co-writers Dave Krinsky and John Altschuler worked with Judge before on King of the Hill, and also penned the 2007 Will Ferrell comedy, Blades of Glory. The two also have a comedy with Steve Carell called Brigadier Gerard about a horseman during the Napoleanic wars. Keeping a busy schedule, they’re also eating their spinach in order to write Popeye for Sony.
Writers: Mike Judge, John Altschuler & Dave Krinsky
Details: 38 pages – undated
There are a few people out there who have created movies so good, they get a lifetime pass with me. That means I will read anything or watch anything they do, no matter how many missteps they make. Mike Judge is one of those people. I love Office Space so much that he could make a movie about old women knitting and I would camp outside the movie theater the day before the movie came out, wearing an old woman costume and carrying an industrial-sized ball of yarn.
Truth be told, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Idiocracy or Extract. They had their moments, and Judge still stuffed some funny characters in each, but it was the structure that doomed them. I don’t think that’s his specialty. Especially with Extract, which peaked at the midpoint then stumbled to the finished line.
Luckily, TV isn’t about plot so much as character. So it fits him well. I mean, I’m not even a fan of trailer trash humor, but I’ve probably seen half of all the King of the Hill episodes because every other episode there’d be at least one thing that would put you on the floor laughing.
So just like Jar Jar has a life debt with Qui-Gon, I have a life debt with Mike Judge. Let’s see what’s going on in this genius’s head.
20-something Thomas has been couch-surfing at one of the many “tech frat” houses that dot Silicon Valley. You know what I’m talking about – the kind of place where Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake partied in the movie, The Social Network.
But, unlike Mark Zuckerberg, Thomas isn’t doing so hot. The owner of the house, a mildly successful “White Urkel” named Erlich, has told him that unless he can start paying rent, he’s out on the street. And out on the street for Thomas means going back to St. Louis and giving up on his Silicon Valley dream.
Thomas’s friends in the house include a young Indian guy who loves Rugby, a black guy who still wears braces, an Asian guy who can’t say anything without swearing 7 times, and a dude named “Big Head,” who, rather unsurprisingly, has a big head. All these guys are rooting for Thomas to figure it out, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.
Well, not so fast. After a series of fortuitous events, Thomas’s app (a music app that cross checks your music against other artists’ music to see if you’re stealing from them) ends up in the hands of two of the biggest billionaires in Silicon Valley. But not for the app’s original purpose (upon which everyone agrees sucks, except Thomas). Rather, his app cuts down a song’s default file size by half!
All of a sudden, Thomas is being offered 30 million dollars from one billionaire and the opportunity to grow a gargantuan company from another. In both cases, though, neither man seems to care about what Thomas wants most – to change the world. So he does the unexpected. He turns down both men, joins his buddies, and starts a new company of his own.
My first impression of Silicon Valley was… where’s Mike Judge???
I was having a hard time seeing his voice here. Judge is known for creating really out-there hilarious characters. Yet all the characters here are standard. Not necessarily cliché (I’m not sure I’ve seen a non-stop swearing Taiwanese character before) but bland.
If you look at Office Space, soooooo many of those characters stood out. There isn’t a single character who stood out here. And what’s weird is that it doesn’t even seem like they were trying to make them stand out. Where was the irony (a straight-laced white guy who loved rap)? The unique dialogue quirks (“Ummm, yeahhhhh”)? The strange obsessions (a weirdo who’s in love with a stapler)? The wacky mannerisms (The stapler guy always talking in whispers and mumbles)? There was absolutely NONE of that here.
This leads me to believe that Altschuler and Krinsky probably did most of the writing here. I’m also basing this on the fact that Silicon Valley focuses on the one thing Judge is uninterested in, plot. The pilot here is very plot-centric and almost set up like a movie. Our main character has a goal (figure out how to sell his app), stakes (if he doesn’t, he’s kicked out of the house) and urgency (he’s got until the end of the month to do it).
Now, you know how much I like my GSU but something’s off here. The script was so constricted trying to hit all the plot beats, that it could never stop to breathe or have fun. Maybe it’s because they only had 30 minutes to fit the story into and therefore HAD to structure it tightly. But in this case, it felt like it sucked all the creativity out of the situations and the characters.
I was also a little confused by our main character’s purpose. Thomas is a very idealistic person, always saying that he came to Silicon Valley to “change the world,” not make money. That ideology even determines the course of the show, as he turns down money and fame to “change the world” with his friends. But how is he changing the world with a music app?
Yeah, I know the app helps musicians, but that’s a far cry from “changing the world.” This reminded me of a common problem writers run into. They come up with a plot solution that solves a big problem, but it doesn’t gel correctly with the other aspects of their story. This Trojan-horse music app solution solves a key plot problem. It gives our main character a legitimate sounding “failed” idea that can later turn into a believable “big” idea. But it does so at the cost of not matching up with our main character’s ideology.
The writer then faces a challenge. Does he reconstruct the plot point to better fit the character (which, if he wants to make it good, is going to take a long time)? Or does he leave it that way and fudge the difference? Most writers pick the latter because… well, because it’s easier.
The thing is, the latter never works. If you’re hearing that little voice in your head telling you, “This isn’t working. I need to fix it,” that voice is right 99.9% of the time. If you see it, readers will see it. It sucks, having to rewrite something that’s clever and smart and took you a long time to come up with. But I’ve said this before and I’ll say it forever: Nobody ever said screenwriting was easy.
I realize I sound like a frenzied stock broker screaming, “Sell sell sell!” today but Silicon Valley isn’t a bad script. It’s just not exceptional. It needed more quirks, more interesting characters, and it needed to have more fun. I did wonder a couple of times, however, if I misread the tone. There’s a chance that the reason there aren’t a ton of laughs here is because this is positioned as a dramedy as opposed to a comedy. If that’s the case, then I came in with the wrong expectations, which obviously affected my opinion. I guess we won’t find out until the show hits the air. And because it’s Judge, I’ll be there to find out.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: One thing I learned here is that if your plot and structure are too tight, they begin to constrict the flow of the story. And that can be deadly for a comedy, which needs to feel fun. So when you’re writing comedy, yes, make sure the structure is in place, but also know that it’s okay to let your characters loose here and there, to let a scene flow, to not only be consumed with plot exposition and hitting all your beats.
What I learned 2: Four qualities that make your characters funnier are a) irony b) mannerisms c) obsessions and d) dialogue quirks/phrases.