At a recent press junket, any reporter who walked into a room with the stars of “Betas” was greeted with bright smiles, cheers and laughter.
This is not common behavior for ensemble comedy casts who have spent hour after hour under hot lights, cycling through the same questions over and over again delivered by different journalists. Cheering at a journalist’s arrival is particularly rare. As in, it never happens.
Then again, “Betas” is not a common situational comedy, which is what its cast of relative newcomers clearly love about it. Series co-star Charlie Saxton sums up the setting thusly: “It’s like the industrial revolution, except with bytes and chips and hard drives!”
“Betas” follows the quest of four young Silicon Valley-based programmers working at Mind Hub Communal Workspace — and their 35-year-old porn-loving colleague, who laments that 35 is, “like, 95 in Silicon Valley years”. All are in fierce competition with other software engineers to design the next lucrative app, which would in turn launch their careers and fill their meager bank accounts.
In order to do so, the group needs funding… which brings them to the doorstep of venture capitalist George Murchison (Ed Begley Jr., playing the role of the aging billionaire Silicon Valley playboy with aplomb), a man who has the power to crush their dreams just as quickly as he can fulfill them. This is where the adventure kicks in.
While this is not the first time TV viewers and movie fans will have seen Joe Dinicol (“The L.A. Complex“), Karan Soni (Safety Not Guaranteed), Saxton (“Hung“), Maya Erskine (“Hart of Dixie“) and Jon C. Daly (“Happy Endings“), for most of them “Betas” represents their first outing as leads of a high profile project: the second series released by Amazon Studios, a startup (of sorts) releasing a series about a startup. Their chemistry percolates onscreen and off, as both the actors and their characters vibrate with the sensation that accompanies being on the verge of something very new and potentially very big.
“There hasn’t been a show about this yet,” says Soni, speaking to the show’s setting in a burgeoning Internet firm. And he’s right. Though it is a workplace comedy at its heart, the politics and odd interpersonal dynamics on display in “Betas” mines relatively new territory in the realm of TV series. Unless you work at an Internet company, the social awkwardness and weird proclivities that seem everyday to the average software geek become surreal comedy to the average non-techie. Soni’s character Nash, for example, craves silence and solitude, and can only tune out the world by blasting ’70s-era soft rock into his ears. You know, perfectly normal abnormal stuff.
Nash is the right hand of the startup’s leader Trey (Dinicol), the most charismatic of the bunch, and certainly possessed of more of a clue about the opposite sex than Saxton’s Mitchell, a would-be romantic with no game — but a lot of time logged as an online gamer. Mitchell pines away for Mikki (Erskine), a stand-offish cool chick who nevertheless displays a soft spot for her co-workers. Daly’s Hobbes is the “old” guy in the office getting his kicks where he can — mainly in the form of online porn. Because, why not?
With the star-studded “Alpha House” having preceded the premiere of the first three “Betas” episode by a week, this is a cast and a project in very good but very high-profile company. That also means meeting very high expectations. Given “Alpha House’s” mostly positive reception by critics and online viewers — it was the most watched show on Prime Instant Video over the weekend of its premiere — the onus is on Studios’ second release to at least meet the same level of buzz as its cohort.
While the world of Silicon Valley and software engineers in general has a reputation for being male dominated, one criticism that “Betas” reportedly fielded during its sampling round was the lack of well-rounded females in the pilot. The producers appear to have ameliorated this concern by beefing up Erskine’s role, making the likable Mikki not only grounded and hip but also the snarky voice of reason.
“She’s incredibly intelligent and she’s kind of like one of the guys in the sense that she’s not afraid to be in this world,” Erskine says. “But we also have other female characters that come in who are very strong. I feel like every female character in this show is fierce.”
“Betas” also seems engineered to attract a younger demo, an audience that is very vocal and can be much harder to please. Working in its favor, other than the fact that it is smartly written and enjoyable to watch, is an important factor DiNicol points out, which is “there’s starting to be a whole generation of people who have worked in that world, who… have had these epic battles within that world.”
What about the old world of broadcast TV production? Begley Jr., who has plenty of experience in that realm (like a show called “St. Elsewhere“…look it up, kids), found the realm of online TV production both familiar and freeing.
“You walk on the set and it looks like a big budget TV show,” he says. “It has that wonderful aspect to it…but there’s not a lot of micromanaging you often get with the network people giving the notes there on the set. Whatever Amazon is saying to the producers doesn’t affect our world at all…and it’s great.
He adds, “I think we’re part of an important trend, the way music made that transition years ago.”