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Review: Off to a bad ‘Start-Up’ in Silicon Valley

DAVID WIEGAND, San Francisco Chronicle

Publication: The Day

Published November 03. 2012 4:00AM

"Silicon Valley is high school. But it's only the smart kids, and everyone has a lot of money."

Kim Taylor, the woman who shares that inaccurate observation, is one of the beautiful young people in Bravo's new reality series "Start-Ups: Silicon Valley," executive produced by Randi Zuckerberg and premiering Monday night. And, yes, we get a plug early in the premiere episode for brother Mark's little lemonade stand, just to keep things all in the family.

The docu-series is all about smug and ambitious pretty people with whom you wouldn't want to spend five minutes in real time. In other words, exactly the kind of chum TV feeds on with unfortunate regularity.

It has hit written all over it.

If you didn't know much about Silicon Valley and watched the first episode, you'd come away with the following impressions: 1. Silicon Valley is whiter than "Children of the Corn." 2. Everyone in Silicon Valley lives in San Francisco, except for those who can afford to live in the East Palo Alto Four Seasons. 3. Young guys wear shirts only when they absolutely have to. 4. There is probably an answer to the question "How do you solve negative cycles in a graph," but first, will someone please explain the question?

Much of the premiere episode is devoted to introducing us to the core cast of young hopefuls: Hermione and Ben are British and have founded something called Ignite, which predicts your life expectancy and allows you to monitor your weight; Sarah is beautiful, lives at the Four Seasons and, drawing an invisible circle around her face, lets us know right off that people think, "This package generally doesn't come with a brain."

Dave is gay, a former fat kid who's had so much work done, you'll lose track, between having his eyes done twice and his back hair lasered away. Dwight, distinguishable from Ben by the lack of a British accent and because he's shirtless more often, lives with Chris, with whom he's founded Carsabi, a used-car search engine.

"I can afford beer and I have a mattress - what more do I need?" Dwight laughs, belying Kim's assertion that everyone in the valley has a lot of money.

He drinks Red Bull and does martial arts moves in front of the mirror to get stoked for the new day. Chris is Asian American and, in keeping with 21st century TV's version of tokenism, is not part of the main cast.

Kim is in charge of sales and marketing for Ampush Media, which optimizes ads for Facebook. She's unabashedly opinionated.

Toward the end of the hour, Ben and Hermione make their presentation to Dave McClure, a venture capitalist and founder of 500 Startups - an incubator for new businesses. Before meeting with McClure, Ben fusses over his wardrobe too much, including ironing a shirt, which his sister finds sadly laughable. She's lived in the valley longer and gets why it's different than doing business in London. While waiting for their appointment with McClure, she crawls under his desk and takes a nap.

Meanwhile, the gang all goes to Hermione's toga party, including Sarah, who is feuding with her because of a dustup over an event they worked on together at South by Southwest. Sarah believes Hermione owes her an apology. Hermione is still mad at Sarah for sending a "very unprofessional e-mail" about Sarah's behavior in Austin.

"It's just an e-mail," Sarah sighs. "Get over it."

Ah, yes, but poor Ben, crushing on Sarah, is caught in the middle: Should he side with his sister or throw her under the bus for romance?

In the midst of the party, as if all of a sudden the clam dip went bad, Dwight wants everyone to leave and go to his friend Rohan's party - a decidedly more down-to-earth affair than the toga bash.

Here, for just a few seconds, you may actually spot examples of the seemingly near-extinct species genus Nerdus americanus - disheveled guys, some on the chubby side, with bad hair, pale skin and glasses that look much more LensCrafters than Alain Mikli or Warby Parker. It's as though a tribe of time-traveling kiwis suddenly waddled into a San Francisco walk-up, but you have to look quickly because they disappear into the underbrush almost immediately. Clearly, these guys aren't ready for their close-ups - not in "Start-Ups: Silicon Valley," at any rate.

"Start-Ups" isn't very good, or very original, neither of which should come as a huge surprise. But what's really too bad is that the show misses a great opportunity to capture the singular mix of ambition and creativity that makes Silicon Valley so special. When word spread that the show was in the pipeline, valley types were reportedly worried that their community would be "Hollywoodized." On the basis of the premiere episode at least, those worries seem to be confirmed.

The show is occasionally good at capturing the entrepreneurial bravado, false or otherwise, that defines Silicon Valley, but it comes across as almost beside the point. Like the other reality shows it imitates, "Start-Ups: Silicon Valley" is about a group of people thrown together in a somewhat closed environment competing with each other, behaving badly at times and not getting along at others.

Maybe "Hyper-Real World: Silicon Valley" would be a more accurate title for the show.

Start-Ups: Silicon Valley airs at 10 p.m. Monday, Nov. 5, on Bravo.

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