Bravo’s new startup show needs less Ways, more means

November 6, 2012

The Cast of Start-Up: Silicon Valley

This evening Bravo aired the hotly anticipated first episode of its technology-focused reality show “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley.” The show has been an object of chatter for months among tech media and Valley pundits, some of whom objected to the idea of a television series glamorizing the parts of their universe they see as a sideshow. (Clearly they have never seen reality television before!) I think dismissing the idea of a show is wrong: Silicon Valley deserves a pop culture examination and send-up of its weird little world. But, at least after one episode, this show probably isn’t it.

The pilot starts with British siblings Ben and Hermione Way, who share a house in the San Francisco hills and foundership of a startup called Ignite. Ignite, Hermione deadpans, is “an app to help you live longer and stay fitter.” Ben later elaborates to venture capitalist Dave McClure that his product “helps monitor your life expectancy in real-time” and uses some kind of system of “time credits,” which apparently adjust one’s remaining lifespan in the app, as if it the company had powered the bracelet from Logan’s Run with the Fountain of Youth. After learning that the Ways are seeking $500,000, based on a PowerPoint and a prayer, McClure is businesslike and direct as he delivers his decision to pass.

Then there’s Sarah Austin, a glossy blonde videoblogger and lifecaster, who claims that her tweets are worth $10,000, and that mere social media magic — surely not a connection to Bravo — earned her a free stay in the East Palo Alto Four Seasons. Much of the first episode is dedicated to a contrived fight between Sarah and Hermione, with two root causes: first, a falling out that occurred during this year’s South by Southwest festival, and second, a lingering resentment over each woman’s place in their flock’s pecking order. You see, Hermione is also a videoblogger, one who covers some of the same material that Sarah does. The disagreement at SXSW was due to an event that should have been for Hermione’s site, but then wound up on Sarah’s, and… okay, it doesn’t really matter. Sarah is being painted as the series villain but so far her calculating seems more robotic than evil.

The other main characters mercifully have more human-like qualities. There’s the likable Kim, a midwest transplant working for a Facebook marketer, who possesses the kind of confidence and nonchalance that presumably accompanies having life goals beyond appearing on TV. And Dwight, the maniacal partyboy coder with signs of latent OCD. And David, the Carnegie Mellon star who is delightfully candid about his plastic surgery. All briefly appeared during breaks in the Hermione/Sarah plotline; one hopes they will get more screentime beyond bit appearances.

What this show needs is to be meaner. Yes, the pilot showed some unflattering sides of the characters, but it never caught a moment that felt authentic. The problem with having two videobloggers on one reality show is that each is so used to controlling the camera that they always play to it. Everyone seemed polished and practiced and all too aware of the situation, and that’s no fun to watch. How can the audience revel in judgmental omniscient superiority if the talent keeps winking at them?

“Start-Ups” also needs to focus less on the Ways, and more on the means: how, in the Valley, real currency is synonymous with social currency. It’s a place with an incredible imbalance of wealth among peers; watching that dynamic play out can be breathtaking. For example, when the Haves get to pick which Have-nots can join their ranks, social mores go bonkers. Prominent VCs cannot travel through a room without acolytes in tow. Well-regarded entrepreneurs are given endless chances to earn their millions, no matter how many they have previously blown. Cults of personality blur the line into actual cults.

A show that exposed these mechanisms would be amazing to watch. “Start-Ups Silicon Valley” touches on it — at one point Hermione brags about her social connections and said that success is based, in part, on who one knows. This is controversial to say out loud in Silicon Valley, which prides itself on being an objective market for talent and intelligence, so I doubt the influence of strong social ties will be thoroughly examined on-air. But if you’re looking for proof of both the existence of this phenomenon and its actual power, you need not look beyond the show’s own credits: it’s produced by Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of Facebook founder Mark.

If the show can get away from the on-message, camera-ready videobloggers and questionable startup idea, and move towards the Valley’s social dynamics and the influence of silly amounts of wealth on them — the thumb on the scale of tech’s alleged egalitarianism — it could yet turn into a watchable dirty secret.

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