Who’s the Best in Tech on TV?

Three-way review of 3 popular tech shows: Silicon Valley, Mr Robot, and Halt and Catch Fire.

SILICON VALLEY 2*

This little HBO comedy is beloved by technerds for how it satirizes the Valley. Getting a lot of things right from overblown valuations to overinflated egos, the show offers many fun Easter eggs for those who are in the know on the tech scene.

However, I found the jokes overcooked, too-obvious (one character modeled on Peter Thiel is actually named Peter), or just not funny. While it highlights the issues in the Valley, it lacks nuance and deeper commentary. By contrast, its political counterpart Veep nails satire by offering a heightened view of both the absurdity and sheer banality of US politics with gut-busting dialogue. In Silicon Valley, too often the punchline is the wink and nod itself, the weird uncle with terrible jokes that keeps asking ‘get it!?’ And unforgivable is its portrayal of one Asian character as a kind of witless mascot, and another as a sexless man-boy.

The show is almost saved by the humble-genius straight-man protagonist played by Thomas Middleditch, and the lovably crude and hilariously cocky owner of the incubator (in actuality just a house), played by TJ Miller. The rest of the characters are mostly 2-dimensional clichés: the evil CEO, the VC with Asperger’s syndrome, the overpriced smooth-talking lawyer.

If you need a crash course on weaknesses of the US tech industry for research or something, watch Silicon Valley. Otherwise, give it a miss.

 

MR. ROBOT 4*

Mr Robot quickly attracted a cult following, and it’s easy to see why. A battle-cry for the disaffected anti-capitalist Millennial, the show serves as a commentary on modern society’s failings. Cybersecurity expert by day, hacker by night Elliot is emotionally tortured, painfully introverted, drug-addicted, lonely, and socially anxious. He finds salvation and kindred spirits in a small hacker collective bent on revenge and righteousness.

The show’s dark, muted tone immerses us in Elliot’s techno-dystopian world, controlled by a mega corporation (somewhat on-the-nose, called ‘Evil Corp’). While the threads of the hacker revenge plot are laid out in detail, the real hook of the show is whether Elliot is slowly descending into madness, and how much of his world is real.

The show drags when the technology takes center stage midway through Season 1. From a television standpoint it was boring, confusing, and unnecessary: firewall workarounds and data security plans do not make for good dialogue. But the show brings it back when more of Elliot’s secrets are revealed, and with the subplot of a marginal character- an ambitious Evil Corp executive who will stop at nothing. The Season 1 finale cleverly left some unexplained mysteries that will make the Season 2 openers exciting.

Rami Malek’s brooding Elliot and the Christian’s Slater’s (yes, THAT Christian Slater) maniacally paranoid Mr Robot make this show very well-acted.

Overall this show is worth watching, but dwelling on the technology slows it down.

 

HALT AND CATCH FIRE 5*

How I just got around to this show I’m not sure. Easily one of the best shows on television, it’s expertly scripted, cast, acted, and shot. Following a team to design the first personal computer at a tech company in Dallas, the show gets right what a lot of other shows get wrong: that the most interesting thing about technology is not the tech itself, but the story that it tells. The writers do a nice job of making the tech language easy to understand and compelling in scenes.

Never before have I seen a show so accurately portray life inside a startup. It’s not glamorous. There is no such thing as ‘overnight success’. No investors bang on the door. It’s bill collectors, missed paydays, stolen code, disloyal employees, and tiny glimmers of hope. It’s one grueling step at a time, one groveling investor meeting after the other. It’s the disdain for the ‘business guy’ until the ‘tech guy’ flubs a critical deal. It’s the wunderkind that makes a simple mistake that puts the whole project in jeopardy. It’s the hard work that goes identically into failures and successes. It’s the raw sexism, ageism, elitism, and classicism that has to be overcome to work together as a team.

Standouts include Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan, a kind of Don Draper meets Steve Jobs, and Mackenzie Davis’s girl-genius Cameron Howe.

The show is wonderful. If you want to truly know what startup life is like, watch Halt and Catch Fire.

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