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Art Imitates Life in HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’

November 8, 2019, 3:35 AM UTC

If you want to see how the public’s perception of tech companies has changed in recent years, you only need watch HBO’s Silicon Valley.

“The show came out a couple of years after the Social Network movie and, at the time, tech was on a big high,” explained Stanford fellow and lecturer Jonathan Dotan, who is also a producer on Silicon Valley, over dinner at Fortune’s Global Tech Forum in Guangzhou on Thursday. “For us, in just researching the show, a chance to sit down with the founders of these major tech companies was like sitting with celebrities.”

The comedy, now entering its sixth season, follows the trials and tribulations of a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur struggling to establish his own company, Pied Piper. Besides being praised for its humor, the show is also admired for how accurately it portrays the bizarre excess of the Valley’s tech elite.

In one sub-plot, for instance, a character in the show is revealed to be self-medicating with blood transfusions from a younger man. That story, Dotan said, is based on a real-life silicon Valley start-up, which offers such a service.

“Our ability to portray those stories authentically meant we could be a lot funnier because the truth is way, way funnier than anything we could possibly make up,” Dotan explained.

“That type of craziness is there but, at the end of the quarter, you really have to root for them on a technical level,” Dotan said. “So that meant that every line of dialogue had to be very well conceived because we had a very tough audience we needed to succeed with, which was the technologists in Silicon Valley.”

The show’s realism has made it a perfect barometer for how far U.S. tech companies have fallen from grace. Billboards advertising the show’s first series ran with the tagline “Silicon Valley: Where Everyone Wants to Be an Icon,” Dotan said. The show’s current sixth series was advertised with the tagline, “Silicon Valley: How Big Is Too Big?”

“Tech companies, which did no wrong six years ago, now can really do no right,” Dotan said.

In the interim, Dotan has watched the show become increasingly political. “This year we open with our main character testifying in front of Congress, which was unthinkable when we started,” he said, coyly admitting the scene was “inspired” by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent experiences.

“There’s been a fall of innocence in the Valley and there’s a real question now—especially with the rise of American technology companies becoming the most valuable companies in the world—about the integrity and values behind these companies.”

Maybe we’ll find an answer to tech’s current problems in the sixth and final series of Silicon Valley.

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