Betas, a Struggling Silicon Valley Comedy, Deserves a ChanceS

If Betas, Amazon's newest web series about startup life, were a startup itself, it'd be time for a pivot. It just hasn't caught on. But even if it's not always good, it's important show—and, since it's streaming on-demand on Amazon, you ought to give it a try.

It's important because startups and the emotion-deficient quasi-humans who create them make for terrific new narrative fodder that's still underused in Hollywood. The Social Network proved that a story about a vengeful nerd and diluted equity could be enormously compelling. But Silicon Valley-focused follow-ups have been slow: A (very shitty) Bravo reality show, an impending Mike Judge project on HBO, and now, Betas, which orbits around four struggling San Francisco geeks and their nascent dating app, BRB. Betas is able to make a story of four young men struggling to build and secure funding for a startup entertaining. That alone is a feat! But it's not enough.

I was excited to dig in to Betas—free for all Amazon Prime subscribers—because of what I thought it might be. Startups have become just another part of the American economy—no less mundane than the paper-supply company featured in The Office. But "startup life," such as it is, is still unexplored and unmocked. And what a shame! The characters should write themselves, and there's no shortage of idiocy to borrow. This is what Betas could do so well—be the first show to give Silicon Valley the skewering it deserves.

It doesn't, yet. Betas is uneven to the point of frustration. Its plotlines veer sharply from the spot-on (an investor's decadent party, hackathons, the conniving press) to the pointless, silly, and convoluted (an amateur wrestling league).

The two male leads, the cofounders of BRB, are played immaculately by Joe Dinicol and Karan Soni. Dinicol's Trey and Soni's Nash are emotionally stunted best friends and Stanford dropouts. That should sound plenty familiar. The former fancies himself a sort of behoodied David Karp pseudo-stud, certain his derivative app is going to be the next mammoth. The latter is a quivering, shy, petrified, and doubts the merit of BRB and himself. (He's probably right!) The pair would look natural onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt, and their characterization is one of the few things Betas' creators have nailed: the co-founder personality voids, barely equipped for business and poorly equipped for life.

The other two protagonists, also working on BRB, are either dead weight or in need of serious recalibration. Hobbes (Jon Daly) is funny, but out of place. His racist-loser-sex-addict schtick doesn't jibe with the rest of the techie dullards (who hired him?), and his stream of zingers wears you down. He seems like he was photoshopped into the cast from another show to keep Betas lively, as if the creators weren't confident enough to have a crew of authentically weirdo startup folk—but Hobbes is more obnoxious than anything else.

So too is Mitchell (Charlie Saxton) is a nebbishy mistake of a character, whose painful dialogue sounds algorithmically generated, ripped from awful Reddit memes and things your mother guesses you text your friends. No one alive is so awful that they say "cray cray" and "mad props, yo"—hearing both from one character will make you consider canceling Amazon Prime.

Resist that urge. Struggle through the mediocre parts of Betas, the lazy caricatures and forced references, and there are rewards. The Jordan Alexis character, reporter for tech gossip rag Valleysmash (heh) and apparent Alexia Tsotsis clone, is the demon blogger my peers and I deserve, although none of us are as charming or attractive. Venture capitalist George Murchison is every self-important white asshole elder of Silicon Valley, right down to inviting Moby to his gauche parties, and falling for the premise of BRB.

And if there's one thing that makes me doubt the whole of Betas, it's that we're asked to back BRB, too. The amount of cognitive dissonance you'll encounter when the show pushes you to hope these kids succeed with their very obviously bad startup might be too much for you—it was for me. Through the whole of the season, we get plenty of lovely jabs at coddled tech bullshitting—the complimentary Red Bull and beers, the hideous offices, San Francisco coffee fetishism—but never at BRB itself. These are manchildren, babies who've been given a shot at making a dumb app for lazy people into a big business.

That deserves to be laughed at more than any of the dick jokes or ethnic cracks, but the show never goes there. We're treated to lots of app references shoehorned in to standard sitcom jokes, and superficial slaps at the Valley, but startups per se are never sufficiently lampooned. When they are—as with a stolen electronics dealer who scoffs at being paid in BRB equity, or office mates working on crowdsourced tequila—the show sings. When tech is just a prop, Betas bores.

But there's greatness and talent here, and a sharpened second season would feel less like a poor man's Big Bang Theory and more like the cutting, vital show this could be. The first season just wrapped up, all eleven episodes are available, and you should try them out. Say what you will about tech, but at least we're alive at a time when you can easily skip around through the good parts of an inconsistent show.