SXSW Film 2014 Day 4: Mike Judge Goes to Silicon Valley and Johnny Depp Hangs Out with Ralph SteadmanA column article, Shot For Shot by: Nick Hanover
Over the last few years, SXSW has embraced the television renaissance by opening the festival up to select shows, a move that paid off when the festival premiered the first few episodes of Girls. Last year, Low Winter Sun was the buzzed about tv premier and while it wasn't exactly well received, this year's Silicon Valley premier more than made up for that disappointment. A new live action comedy series from Mike Judge, Silicon Valley would have received attention regardless of its quality. But fortunately, Judge and his incredible cast and crew have assembled one of the most promising plot driven comedies to hit HBO in ages.
Much of Silicon Valley's appeal comes from its unique concept, which centers around a group of young tech geeks struggling to make it in a fiercely competitive industry that dominates our cultural and economic landscape yet mystifies the general public. Judge and his writers expertly craft dialogue that is sharp, smart and yet fully accessible, allowing the show to poke fun at geekdom in a loving and knowledgeable way. That automatically places it miles ahead of The Big Bang Theory's pandering tokenism, even though Silicon Valley's protagonist Richard (Thomas Middleditch) shares some traits with BBT's Sheldon. Big Bang Theory has arguably become a hit because of its broad writing and its use of stereotypes, but there's no reason why Silicon Valley's specificity and accuracy can't work to its advantage, particularly given the strength of its cast.
Middleditch may be the central figure in Silicon Valley but he's surrounded by one of the best comedic ensembles on tv today, including Freaks and Geeks and Party Down's Martin Starr, Workaholics' TJ Miller and stand-up comic and frequent Portlandia guest Kumail Nanjiani amongst others. The chemistry between Silicon Valley's main cast is undeniably strong in the episodes that were screened at SXSW, which is a great sign for any comedy but especially in a show that could easily have succumbed to being a niche cult work. The show's well developed plot also bodes well for the series, giving it a Social Network-like edge that allows it the freedom to tell a complex, multifaceted story that happens to also be extremely funny. Unsurprisingly, Judge also brings his eye for detail to Silicon Valley, granting the sitcom a cinematic quality that is often lacking from workplace comedies and his background as a former Silicon Valley engineer is apparent throughout.
HBO has done an excellent job building up its comedy stable over the past few years, mostly due to its willingness to let seldom heard voices speak up, whether it's the conflicted and self-effacing women of Girls or the struggling adult gay men of Looking, and Silicon Valley is no exception. The show is refreshingly self-aware and the first two episodes proved Judge and company are eager to keep their brilliant, fragile nerds from being just another set of cliches, instead dedicating themselves to exploring why “those most likely to succeed are the least qualified to deal with success,” as Judge put it in the Q & A. Even the lack of female characters on the show seems to be a topic Judge and company are prepared to confront, as a fan question about that inadequacy indicated. TJ Miller actually put it best, albeit in a joking way, when he rephrased the question and asked the audience if they felt the ratio of men to women on the show was accurate for the industry (much of the crowd in attendance were here for SXSW Interactive) and whether the better question might be why the tech industry had such poor female representation in real life. The show's main female character, Monica (Amanda Crew), is also notably the only stable person in the series, far more poised and confident than even her billionaire boss.
Silicon Valley also shares with Girls and Looking a dissatisfaction with how prior generations have carved up the world, particularly the hippie platitude of “let's change the world!” a sentiment Richard specifically calls out at the end of the second episode. That sentiment comes up frequently in the Ralph Steadman documentary For No Good Reason, so it stands to reason that Silicon Valley's characters would be as frustrated with it as I was. Steadman is one of the most immediately recognizable artists in the world thanks to his contributions to the ouevre of Hunter S. Thompson. Utilizing a scratchy, abstract style influenced by the nightmare imagery of Francis Bacon, Steadman's look defined gonzo journalism nearly as much as Thompson's words because of his ability to portray human oddballs in a stripped down, primal way. Charlie Paul directs For No Good Reason in an equally stylized way, pairing together Terry Gilliamesque framing sequences with animated interpretations of Steadman's art and intimate examinations of the artist's working process.
That element of Paul's film is sound, as he does a fantastic job illuminating the spontaneity of Steadman's methods and Johnny Depp's appearances as an audience surrogate who has been allowed to enter Steadman's inner sanctum and hear about his processes make these scenes all the more engaging. But Paul's documentary falls apart whenever the director decides to let frustratingly poor music choices steal the spotlight from Steadman. Whoever Paul hired as a sound designer should be exiled from the industry permanently, because there is no possible justification for setting Steadman's often terrifying art to the sounds of Jason Mraz or All-American Rejects. Steadman himself also works against the documentary at points, as he goes out of his way to explain the pretty obvious political imagery he utilized through much of the '70s and has a tendency to beat you over the head with the ways he felt he and his generation changed the world.
Steadman is a justly celebrated artist, and his work endures in the cultural sphere for a reason, but For No Good Reason is only half a great film that is ultimately undone by its indecisiveness. Is it a documentary about Johnny Depp and Ralph Steadman hanging out? Is it a beautifully stylized exploration of the artistic process? Or is it a surreal reality tv work that strangles the viewer with MTV soundtrack choices and sentimental monologues? Like SXSW on the whole, For No Good Reason is torn apart by its attempts to be overly artful and overly commercial at once.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter egos at Fitness and Pontypool.