Wednesday, June 4, 2014

(Computer) Science fiction

I'm already watching too much TV on Sundays (and probably watching too much, generally) so I didn't bother to tune in to HBO's Silicon Valley for its initial season. By the same token, I may not bother with AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, even though the premise is far more interesting. Having watched the first two episodes of the former and the first episode of the latter in the last 24 hours (See? Too much TV), it was interesting to contrast the two, since they're approaching the topic from very different perspectives and eras.

Silicon Valley is done in the style of Veep, in that it's a half hour comedy of absurd people in absurd situations about the modern software industry and its race to be the "next big thing." It's a creation of Mike Judge and, admittedly, I am a Judge fan. I think Office Space is still one of the best comedies ever made and I appreciated his work on both Beavis & Butthead and King of the Hill, although I was not a hardcore fan (i.e. have seen every episode) of either. While I did have a couple laugh-out-loud moments while watching SV, there were only a couple. The rest of the time I was actively conscious of myself sitting there not laughing and occasionally wondering why I was bothering.

Drawing a direct comparison with Office Space, if your main character (Richard) is a simp instead of an everyman and his immediate supporting cast is a collection of people who are various shades of annoying/space-filling/repellent, it's going to be hard to sell your story, since people won't identify with the characters as easily. Furthermore, if the cast is some combination of those shades and you can only draw a couple real laughs an episode, it's going to be very hard. It doesn't help that almost all of the characters are stock "computer geeks" from central casting: Richard looks like he's going to go into conniptions everytime someone acknowledges his presence; Erlich is bombastic guy who pretends to know it all when he really just got lucky; Dinesh is token Indian guy who's probably smarter than all the rest of them combined, and so on.

There's a certain vein of humor there that has a lot to do with personal experience. Office Space was broadly appealing because it was both smartly written and many people could relate to its soul-deadening experience. Veep is not in everyone's wheelhouse because it's a particular style of humor (generally, the kind that often makes you uncomfortable for one or more characters) and it will have more resonance for those that actually have experience in the workings of American politics. I have that so I find it hysterically funny (especially because I've known people who worked on the Hill who are more like the characters from the show than they'd be willing to admit.) By the same token, Silicon Valley is trying to mine the "super-rich programmers completely out of touch with humanity" angle, which most of us recognize, but may not have personal experience with. The problem I'm having is that, unlike Veep (or Office Space), none of the characters are distinctive enough nor the actors talented enough to get past that "needed to be there" shell.

Halt and Catch Fire, OTOH, has more hooks to it if you're actually interested in story. It's set in the days when PCs and the computer revolution were just taking off, so there's more energy to the premise than the intentionally dreary SV, where everyone is just trying to tweak something that someone has already done... which is the central complaint of HaCF whose characters strive to be "different" than the omnipresent IBM (this is sounding like Steve Jobs' wet dream from that era.) The problem is that few people of that era (yes, I remember it) were concerned so much with being 'different' or 'new' or 'innovative' as they were with just being competitive. It seems like HaCF is just transposing today's modern sensibility about software development to yesterday's concerns about hardware development. Yes, that will sell your story as your primary audience will identify with it, but it's also a bit trite.

Thankfully, the cast seems to be a bit more skilled than SV, but their characters are similarly stereotypical: Joe is Ambitious Salesman who talks to everyone as if he's quoting the Pauline epistles while showing them the REAL way to do things; Gordon is Unappreciated Genius with wife, Donna, who is least appreciative because genius detracts from family somehow; Cameron is Gender-Neutrally Named Woman Who Does 'It' Better Than Any Of The Men ('It' being the central conceit of the drama.) I mean, sure, I found it more interesting to watch, even if my initial thought about seeing Joe and Gordon playing their roles was: "How did they manage to split Walter White into two different people?" But it's really hard to get past the initial bombast of the writing coming from such stock characters. I have a certain greater level of appreciation for it at the moment because I was there when this was going on (albeit too young to be anything other than an interested user/observer) and because there's an enormous level of detail in it (BYTE magazine, Cameron listening to The Vandals, etc.) But I have my doubts that those things will be enough to get away from what seems to be a very conventional story (in direct contrast to the premise of the show); so conventional, in fact, that they felt the need to include a stick-in-the-mud character like Donna and then immediately 'solve' her issue to avoid the so-called "Skyler White problem." Even with that bit of forethought, that whole scenario was so boilerplate that I was recoiling from the screen.

And then I turned off the DVR and the TV was showing a better computer show/movie than either of them... So, I don't know. Given some encouragement, I might go back and watch another couple episodes of Silicon Valley to see if I "get it" and I'll probably watch the 2nd episode of Halt to see if it goes somewhere (my entry level for AMC dramas these days remains a guy in a gas mask and his tighty-whities driving an RV at high speed with two corpses in the back), but I don't have a lot of faith at the moment.

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