Monday, July 14, 2014

"An Intriguing, Subtle And Arguably Important Question"

e successful.  You want to be as good as you possibly can be.  The question for today is,

“What if you are as good as you can possibly be and it doesn’t make you successful?”

We went to see this master blues guitarist/songwriter at a Santa Monica folk music landmark, McCabe’s Guitar Shop.  Not to be confused with Dodger Stadium or the Staples Center, the McCabe’s concert venue (in the back of a musical instruments emporium) has a total capacity of 150 people.  And that night, it was not entirely sold out.

The word that came to mind as I watched the performance of the fit and funny seventy-year old entertainer, who played mostly his own songs interspersed with self-effacing humorous patter was “complete.” 

He’d been doing this a long time, and his consummate musicianship and relaxed stage presence confirmed it.  And yet, there he was, plying his trade at a not quite sold out performance in an intimate venue behind a musical instruments store.   

Let me be clear here.  This is not me, making a judgment concerning commercial success.  I am aware that “bigger” is not necessarily better.  The point of fact is that throughout the evening, the performer himself poked fun at his less than superstar status, telling stories about career-elevatingly close calls that did not ultimately pan out, the majority of his extended anecdotes ending with a philosophical

“Oh, well.”

What exactly could he do?  It is not like he could strategically alter his approach.  This was the essence and best version of what he had to offer.  And this is where it had gotten him. 

(Unlike, say, Mick Jagger – delivering a different “essence”– who you will not see performing at McCabe’s.)

Coincidental with our attending that concert, I watched a new HBO comedy called Silicon Valley. 

Silicon Valley is, to me, an appealing half-hour comedy about a group of young software designers and entrepreneurs, created with two partners by Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead – which I never got into, though I enjoyed the movie – and King of the Hill – which resonated unexpected heart – as well as the cult favorite movie Office Space­ ­– which I for the most part admired.)

Here’s the thing about Silicon Valley that is relevant for today’s outing.  Paralleling the blues guitarist, the series feels as polished and skillful as it can possibly be executed.  The casting is impeccably on the money, the writing is generally sharp and surprising, the knowledge of the terrain feels persuasively “inside”, insightful and real.

And yet…

As successful as Silicon Valley is going about its business, for me at least, the show simultaneously reflects displays a distancing, recessive quality.  With the exception of one red-headed outlier – although he too achieves far less than “Bluto” Blutarsky (“Animal House”) intensity, the characters on Silicon Valley appear deadeningly tamped down, as if all the characters were on Prozac.

Which, as far as I can tell from the people I have spoken to about it, adds not at all to its appeal.

I am thoroughly unknowledgeable about the Silicon Valley arena.  That could be exactly what those people are like, or at least enough of them to make the depiction recognizable.  The thing is, characters on a television series need to be more than just accurate.  They need to be people you are willing to hang out with.  (Oh, my God!  Did I just sound like a network executive?)
Stereotypically, at least, Silicon Valley people are perceived as being young and brilliant and nerdy.  That being the case, then Silicon Valley is portraying them correctly.  (Unlike The Big Bang Theory contingent that infuses its paper-thin storylines with punchline-inflected hard jokes.)  (Instructive Note:  By drawing their nerd characters more cartoonily, The Big Bang Theory attracts an audience more than ten times the size of Silicon Valley’s.  Just so you are aware of your options.)
Let us say that Silicon Valley is doing it right.  What if, however, “doing it right” is exactly what is inhibiting the viewership size of your audience?   
And if you try to alter the recipe – pump in some obligatory “heat” – well the thing is, you can’t.  Not because of artistic integrity – or not only because of artistic integrity – but because it just wouldn’t fit the concept.  (And also, perhaps, because “low-key” is the show’s creators natural patios.) 

A small audience is not the worst thing that can happen to you.  (The worst thing is no audience.)  In today’s fragmented environment, it can be enough to keep you in the game.  Still, there is this undeniable reality going on.

“I’m doing my best.”

“(INSERT SUPERSTAR’S NAME OF CHOICE) is doing their best.”


Some people don’t have it.  Some people do.  And some people have it but what they have will carry them so far but no further.  I wonder how that feels.

Hold on a second.  I may actually know.
Follow-Up Note:  My research indicates that Silicon Valley has been picked up for a second season.  Apparently, more people out there enjoy a distancing recessive quality like than I was aware of.

1 comment: said...

sadly, the best thing on silicon valley was the actor playing the guy funding the startup and he died shortly after making the last episode he was in. The show has been uneven but I think everyone hopes it can get better. The Big Bang Theory was less popular but much more to my taste in its earlier, nerdier seasons.

re McCabe's: amazing to hear it's still going. In 1977 or thereabouts I opened there for Gordon Bok.