Twenty years ago, two young movie obsessives living in Central Texas scrounged together enough money to make their first feature films, and in the process established Austin as the new center of American independent film. Despite the success of El Mariachi and Slacker, however, no one at the time would have guessed that Robert Rodriguez would grow up to become a movie mogul or that Richard Linklater would have directed a Best Picture nominee at this year’s Academy Awards. But this is the world in 2015: The outsiders have become the industry; the artists have become the world-beaters.
Mike Judge knows all about the rise from flyover-state obscurity to the heights of Hollywood acceptance. While Rodriguez and Linklater were busy shooting their first features in Austin, Judge was 200 miles north in Dallas making the animated short films that would eventually become Beavis and Butt-head. Even more than those of his colleagues to the south, Judge’s rise was a rush: One minute he was learning how to draw animated cels, the next he was saving MTV from collapse. The trajectory was not dissimilar from what he’d witnessed years earlier working for a tech startup in Silicon Valley, where it was, and still is, common to see computer nerds become millionaires seemingly overnight. Judge’s brilliant HBO comedy, Silicon Valley (Season 1 of which will be released on DVD this month) is a peek behind the curtain of that kind of rarified ascendency. The series tells a story of socially awkward geniuses striving to become self-made masters of the universe—Astors with social anxiety disorder, Rockefellers in hoodies and torn T-shirts.
The heroes of Silicon Valley (all men, living together in one house among a profusion of computers and junk food) exist in a bizarre, insulated world of corporate cults, unfathomable wealth, blindingly sudden success and very few women. Consequently, their lives amount to balancing acts of self-importance and awkwardness, messianic delusions and pathological anxiety. As Judge once said of this new technological Gilded Age, “The people most qualified to succeed are the least capable of handling success.” Housemates Richard, Erlich, Guilfoyle and Dinesh know how to create world-changing innovations, but they have no idea what to do with themselves once they get up from their computers. Like their heroes before them (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg), they dream of creating revolutionary technologies that will justify all those years spent at the bottom of the social totem pole, communicating in a bizarre tribal vernacular and convincing themselves that their stabs at monetary success and cultural icon-hood are really philanthropic endeavors. “We’re making the world a better place,” goes one refrain, repeated in limitless variations throughout the series, “through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility.” This may be gibberish, but it’s their gibberish.
Another new HBO show, this one produced by adopted sons of Austin, looks through the lens of success in the other direction. Togetherness was created by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, who helped develop the mumblecore film movement before moving west to Hollywood. The series looks at the lives of adults who were once full of potential (the show’s most tragicomic hero, Alex Pappas, was the star of every play and sports team in high school) but have leveled off at average as middle age approaches.
Given their career-long fascination with the intimacies and gestures of everyday interactions, the Duplass brothers seem made for serial television, a form that allows them to explore the tiny defeats and disappointments that make up a life. The four protagonists of Togetherness (which is now showing on Sundays)—one married couple, one unhinged sister and Pappas—are writhing masses of internal contradiction and minor struggle, bound by the realization that they never became the great (or even fulfilled) people they thought they would be. The collapses of the 40s—of career, of marriage, of body, of desire and desirability, of potential and self-worth—are simply the inheritances of a life lived.
The characters of Togetherness tinker with their inner lives, but the stakes are higher and the pathologies more complex on Silicon Valley. The young men behind the computers aren’t struggling to adapt or coming to grips or coping; they’re righting long-simmering personal wrongs by recreating the world to suit them, one byte at a time. Like Linklater, Rodriguez and Judge, they’re outsiders becoming insiders, not by adapting to the world, but by forcing the world to adapt to them.