Television is a demographics game. The key demographic is considered to be the 18-49 year old male television viewer. It is fitting that two of the newest shows to air, HBO’s Silicon Valley and FX’s Fargo, feature lead characters that cover both ends of this age spectrum.
Silicon Valley revolves around Richard (Thomas Middleditch), a sheepish computer programmer working for Hooli, a not-so-subtle reference to Google. Richard lives in an “incubator”, which appears to be a living situation where the landlord (in this case, the hilarious TJ Miller) gives you a place to stay and in return they get a percentage of whatever profits you earn on technologies you create while living in said incubator.
Richard and his cohort (Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr and Josh Brener) have created Pied Piper, a music app that can determine if a songwriter’s newly created music infringes on already-produced music. While this sounds like a ridiculous idea for a website, the true genius of Pied Piper is Richard’s compression algorithm for shrinking the music files. As anyone who watches Netflix knows, file sizes just keep getting bigger and bigger as resolution increases. Richard’s compression algorithm has somehow managed to make compression quick and lossless, which could completely change the way the world uses the internet. This leads to a competition for the procurement of Richard’s algorithm. The first of two competitors for Richard’s algorithm is Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), the pretentious new-age CEO of Hooli, who offers Richard $10 million for his idea. The other competitor for the algorithm is the eccentric Peter Gregory (the recently deceased Christopher Evan Welch, who is brilliant in this role), who is sort of a Steve Jobs type, who offers to bankroll Richard’s Pied Piper company in exchange for a 5% stakehold. This is an interesting dichotomy and feels like a very Mike Judge issue: does one take the money and literally sell-out to a corporation, or does one take a risk and try to become a self-made billionaire?
This show is fantastic. It is well-written (the dialogue is highly technical and I love that the writing doesn’t condescend to the audience), the characters are hilarious, but my main point of contention with the show is the main character. Richard is a nebbishy computer programmer and everyone walks all over him. His landlord Erlich bullies his way into 10% of Pied Piper (I’m not sure how legal “incubators” are, I would think 10% is a bit much). His coworkers at Hooli constantly pick on him. Even Peter Gregory browbeats Richard. It would seem that Richard’s character is the everyman that we are supposed to identify with, as if we are all sheepish browbeaten men at our workplaces. A lot of us ARE men who somehow feel marginalized by our work predicaments. Perhaps we aren’t paid as much as we would like. Perhaps we don’t have as much power in the workplace or our living situations as we would like. But how many of us have created something that could potentially change the world? Granted, I may have made some miraculous isotopes with a nuclear reactor, but let’s be honest, how amazing would it be to be able to watch Netflix without any buffering? I find it hard to have sympathy for someone who is brilliant enough to change the world but not confident enough to hold his head up high.
It appears that Richard “mans up” by the end of the second episode of Silicon Valley, so maybe his weakness will wash away as he begins to work on making Pied Piper a successful company. I will continue to enjoy watching the exploits of the Pied Piper company and can’t wait to see where Mike Judge and company take us. For the sake of this review, I would like to imagine that Pied Piper fails, Richard is epically humiliated, and he ends up changing his name and moving to North Dakota, where he ends up becoming the protagonist of FX’s Fargo.
Fargo is set in a similar universe to that which the movie Fargo portrayed, which is the wacky universe of North Dakota and northern Minnesota. The pilot episode begins with Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) driving down a snowy highway with the sound of someone trying to escape from the trunk. A group of deer run across the highway, causing an accident. The trunk opens and a man in his underwear escapes into a remote snow-covered forest. Why is this guy in his underwear? Why does Lorne Malvo have such a ridiculous haircut? This really sets the tone for the show.
The show then cuts to Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) bumping into an old bully from high school. The bully is with his two sons (who are bullies in the making) and he reminisces about the times he humiliated Lester (even calling him “Lester Nigger”), to the point that it’s painful for the viewer to see Lester sit through this. Lester gets scared when the bully throws a fake punch and ends up recoiling into a window, causing a broken nose and an appointment to the ER, where he meets Malvo. He regales Malvo with the story of his encounter with his high school bully and Malvo offhandedly offers to kill the man for him. Lester cannot even ask Malvo to either perform the task or cancel the task as he is too chicken to make any decisions with his life.
Are all marginalized older white male characters named Lester? This character shares a lot of traits with American Beauty’s Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), as they are both middle-aged men stuck in dead-end jobs and trapped in loveless marriages. Nygaard heads home and is immediately nagged by the stereotypical nagging wife character. She openly wonders why she married him instead of his more successful brother, and berates him for not working his way further up the ladder in his office at an insurance agency.
We are introduced to some other characters in the opening episode. There is Molly Solverson (newcomer Allison Tolman), the deputy who finds Malvo’s crashed car and begins to unravel the mystery of the man in the trunk. By the end of the episode, she appears to be the Frances McDormand equivalent and I am intrigued to see what she continues to do with the role. We also meet Deputy Bill Oswalt, who in my opinion will end up being a criminally underused Bob Odenkirk, a bumbling character that is weakly played for comedic effect.
This show definitely borrows from the Coen brothers’ catalog. Lorne Malvo is played in a similar tone as Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, but with a dash of Bad Santa thrown in. Martin Freeman is a poor man’s William H. Macy in this role. He has the perfect face and body for this role as his round face and short frame make him physically smaller than all of the other characters that would dominate him (including his wife). Allison Tolman seems to be a great choice for the Frances McDormand role.
I really enjoyed Fargo the movie. The performances by William H. Macy, Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi were iconic. Thus far, it seems that Fargo the TV show is a pale imitation of the movie. The quaint northern midwest accents that were silly in small doses in the film have become a bit over-the-top in the TV show. I’m not sure if the viewer will get sick of them by the end of 13 episodes, but if this 90 minute pilot was any indication, I will. The accents are set up in a way to make the characters seem stupid or less intelligent than they actually are, which is really a shame for characters that should have more gravitas. I will continue to watch this show and I am usually harsh on pilot episodes, but so far I do not have high hopes for this show.
In summation, if I were to choose which marginalized white man show to watch, I would select the Mike Judge show before the Coen Brothers show. I suppose it all depends on what environment you want your story set in. I am far more familiar with office spaces than countries for old men.