Stateside tech series like Silicon Valley (HBO) and Halt and Catch Fire (AMC) obsess over artists and visionaries – the institutional barriers that exceptional individuals face and the sweeping societal changes they can enact. London-set Loaded plays up its (post-imperial) Britishness: The stakes are lower, the ambitions meeker, the personalities compulsively self-deprecating. This more existential version of Silicon Valley, while no less bro-y and dick-centric, borrows much from the central observation behind both iterations of The Office, that desk life is a constant hum of boredom, embarrassment, and aggression from on high. It’s go big or go home for the characters on the American tech shows: Halt’s programmers and entrepreneurs innovate personal computers, online games, and cybersecurity in the ‘80s, while Silicon Valley’s programmer protagonist aspired in the recently concluded season to create an entirely new Internet. In contrast, Josh’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Abi (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) is less than impressed with his accomplishments: “Your job is basically wasting people’s lives.”
At times, Loaded veers compellingly close to anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist satire. The show revels in what money can buy, like a barbershop quartet that the Cat Factory co-founders send to their nemeses’ doors to sing “Suck my balls” in four-part harmony. But questions of worthiness dog the characters enough to become an intriguing, if undeveloped, theme. “No one deserves 14 million pounds for a game mums play on the toilet,” argues Josh himself about each of the co-founders’ payouts. Recovering alcoholic Watto quickly finds that money just allows him to afford a new addiction: buying tons of shit he doesn’t need, like every last sandal in a Birkenstock store. Accordingly, most of the post-millions purchases here play as joke fodder rather than wish fulfillment: mini-scooters to ride around their new mansion; baths in Dom Perignon (“it’s fizzing around my balls” “feels like success”); a murky, underground pool whose custom black tiles make it look like a cave where an ancient demon feeds on virgin souls; maybe Weezer.
Four episodes in, it seems unlikely that Loaded will ever be anything more than a Compaq laptop – a perfectly adequate also-ran destined to fade away. The sharper takes on new wealth, like the characters’ sudden discomfort at the income disparities within the office, are dulled by broader gags about Cat Factory’s shark-like American investor (an excellent Mary McCormack), who calls her new employees “bed-wetting Hugh Grant sons of bitches,” and the already repetitive parade of estranged friends and family who suddenly want a piece of Josh and/or his friends’ fortune. The central cast, rounded out by timorous coder Ewan (Jonny Sweet) and flashy business developer Leon (Samuel Anderson), hasn’t succeeded in differentiating the pals from one another and boasts just a smidge more diversity than the overwhelmingly white and male Silicon Valley. And while the jokes are consistently snappy, the hour-long running time (45 minutes without commercials) is too long to sustain the weak tension that rambles each installment forward.
Without the entertaining excesses of HBO’s industry parody, the Silicon Roundabout series (yes, that’s what London’s tech hub is actually called) offers a single downhome message: Being rich isn’t as awesome as you might think. And so we’re expected to sympathize with these mostly white, mostly straight men for their inability to enjoy having more than they could have ever dreamed of. To matter, Loaded must elevate this streak of melancholy into something more than self-pity.