How 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist,' 'Silicon Valley' and 'Devs' Create "Emotional Payload" Within a Complex Tech World

Complex Tech World- Split -publicity-H 2020
Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO; Miya Mizuno/FX; Sergeri Bachlakov/NBC

Writers on three very different shows reveal how they portray the industry's culture and conflicts.

As technology continues to pervade every aspect of life, from the way people work to how they watch entertainment and even socialize, several shows took viewers behind the curtain of the (fictional) companies that could exist in the cutthroat world of Silicon Valley.

From Alex Garland's futuristic sci-fi drama Devs to Austin Winsberg's musical comedy Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist and Alec Berg's quirky Silicon Valley, each series explores the complex, and often mysterious, world of tech in very different ways.

Berg was inspired to create HBO's Silicon Valley, which wrapped its sixth and final season in December, as an accurate, but also comical, look into the tech industry. "My brother is in the tech business," says writer, director and executive producer Berg. "I'd heard [him] complaining about how crazy the tech world was, so I knew that was an area ripe for parody and satire."

For NBC's Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, Winsberg used tech archetypes to flesh out the main character. "When I first started thinking about [Zoey], I didn't want her to be somebody who was instantly socially open and comfortable talking and communicating with other people," says Winsberg, whose show follows a young programmer who works at a tech firm as she navigates family and romantic relationships. "And I know that a lot of computer programmers are people who hide behind their computer screens all day, who may be more literal-minded and aren't necessarily used to the shades of gray that can exist in the world."

And Garland aimed to explore big issues like determinism by setting his FX on Hulu limited series, which follows a secretive company creating a program that can revisit moments from the past, in the tech industry. "When I came across the idea of determinism some time ago," series creator Garland said at the TCAs in January, "I thought, 'Well, that's an interesting idea,' that we don't have free will and that, in a sense, if you had a powerful enough prediction machine, you could predict what you or I were about to do in five minutes' time."

Looking to mimic the real tech industry, these shows often draw from current events and real-life experiences. Winsberg considered what a computer programmer protagonist would look like and discovered the challenges that many women face in the very male-dominated industry. "Suddenly it felt like there was just an opportunity there to tell interesting and different kinds of stories about what it means to be a woman in that space," he says, which also inspired the two high-level female tech executive characters. "I didn't want to see women fighting against women at the end of the day; I wanted to show that they could be supportive."

At its inception nine years ago, Silicon Valley also pulled from current events. "The Arab Spring just happened," Berg says. "Twitter and Facebook were taking credit for liberating the world with information. And there was this unbelievable smugness and this self-congratulation in the tech world. And everyone would talk about their company not as a capitalist endeavor, but more or less like it was a charity and their mission was to make the world a better place. That became a running joke in the show."

Pulling from current events and experiences also gives a show a feeling of accuracy. "People in the tech world who liked the show liked it because they felt like we really did our homework," Berg says. The writers of Silicon Valley put an immense amount of research into the show, interviewing dozens of tech industry veterans, bringing on a number of tech consultants and, after the first season, planning regular research trips to Palo Alto and San Francisco. "We would meet with a ton of companies and VCs, a lot of whom became people that we consulted on a regular basis," Berg recalls.

As with Silicon Valley, Devs creator Garland put an emphasis on grounding his tech world in reality. "Whenever you read or watch something about [a subject] you happen to know about, usually what you think is, 'Well, that's not what it's like,' " Garland said at the TCAs. Aside from the philosophical research Garland put into the show, he went to great lengths to make the titular machine as realistic as possible, contacting several people to write quantum computer code to be displayed on the screens.

Notes Winsberg of his research for Zoey, "We did a lot of our homework in trying to feel like we were authentic and true to the women-in-the-workspace experience and also what it's like to be part of tech culture." For the pilot, his research focused on the dynamics of empowered women at a tech company and featured a lot of articles and interviews with women in the industry. Once picked up, the show's focus expanded to the tech world as a whole. "Our production designer, Rusty Smith, did a lot of research into these open workplace environments that exist in both San Francisco and Silicon Valley," he says.

Apart from re-creating the physical world and the interpersonal dynamics, a significant challenge of storytelling within the tech industry is interpreting rather complex technical ideas and language for a mass audience. For Devs, a show with a complex concept at its core, Garland relied on "having a kind of underlying faith that the [television] audience will be more interested in this than certainly in the world I came from." Garland had previously waded into the tech pool with his feature directorial debut, Ex Machina, for which he earned an Oscar nom for best original screenplay. But television gave him more freedom to tackle complicated tech themes. "You have time. You're not trying to cram stuff into two hours."

When it came to the complexities, Berg took a different approach, using his own lack of technological understanding as a tool. "I had to keep preserving my own ignorance," he says. "I never wanted to understand the concepts so well that I lost track of what the average person understood." As for the common industry knowledge — the concepts and phrases no one in tech would need explained — Berg describes a constant debate between explaining a concept thoroughly and maintaining industry accuracy. "We called it the emotional payload," he says of the idea of tying technical descriptions to emotions, giving the explanations a purpose. "What is the emotional payload of this story? This scene, what is this about? What's an analogy for that?"

Winsberg similarly compares tech-based shows to medical dramas. "A lot of times when [shows] throw out a lot of medical lingo, you still understand the emotion of what's happening and what the story is," he says. "For me, as long as you didn't get too bogged down in the coding language and the linguistics of it all … I felt like that would still keep everything accessible."

The tech industry has expanded so rapidly, many have begun to fear where it will go next. "It is very clearly the case that technological advances are happening at a rate that we are not able to keep up with," says Garland. Even the lasting impact of social media is a subject ripe for debate — with little consensus to be found. "I have a 17-year-old daughter," Berg shares, "who's mired in all the complexities of social media right now, and just the levels of anxiety and dysfunction and meanness and pettiness that go on in social media." And unfortunately, there is no way to escape technology, even if you try. As Winsberg puts it: "It's so much a part of what we do every single day. It's so inherently built into who we are. My iPhone is almost an extension of me at this point, for better or worse."

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.