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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Silicon Valley buys in without selling its soul

Illustration for article titled Silicon Valley buys in without selling its soul
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Silicon Valley was never meant to fit inside Erlich Bachman’s living room. To properly satirize the tech industry, the show ought to burst and bloom, bubble and bust like the symbols of e-commerce depicted in its Sim City intro sequence. The second-season finale, “Two Days Of The Condor,” managed to fit these cycles into a single, thrilling climax, which saw twitchy programmer Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) dodge two start-up-ruining bullets, before finally taking one right in the chest: Booted from the CEO position of the software company he started, Pied Piper. Pied Piper is poised for rapid growth as season three opens, with a new chairman, a swanky office space, and new causes for professional jealousy on the part of Erlich (T.J. Miller).

Season two of Silicon Valley upgraded a dependable single-camera sitcom into the most meticulously constructed comic machine on premium cable. That machine works through the “Condor” cliffhanger with great efficiency, restoring the show’s balance while placing Richard, Erlich, Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), and Jared (Zach Woods) on a larger stage. The wonky workplace concern of these early episodes revolves around “scaling” the Pied Piper platform for a larger customer base, but that’s nothing showrunners Mike Judge and Alec Berg need to fret over. By putting Pied Piper in a situation where it must behave like an actual business—like the Yankees to its Bad News Bears, digital behemoth Hooli—season three of Silicon Valley organically adds to all that’s at risk. And that serves to intensify the anxieties and pettiness that fuel the show’s humor.

Pushing Richard out of the boss’ chair is valley veteran Jack Barker, played by Stephen Tobolowsky. Tobolowsky makes a fitting addition to the show’s stable of affably malevolent authority figures, the type of guy who quashes a potential power play by conducting official business in the company of breeding thoroughbreds. (In the proud tradition of “optimal tip-to-tip efficiency,” Silicon Valley makes comedic hay of a raging equine erection.) A formidable talent whose Southern drawl could be bottled and sold as top-shelf bourbon, Tobolowsky initially sells “Action Jack” as Pied Piper’s avuncular savior, but Barker winds up throwing his age, experience, or business acumen in Richard’s face whenever his vision for the company is questioned. Those race horses betray the stone-cold gangster beneath Barker’s tech-geek facade, and it’s great fun watching the erstwhile Ned Ryerson ease his way into such a villainous persona.

Judge’s work has long been marked by a skepticism toward the people in charge, whether they’re running a classroom, an office, or a future dystopia populated by simpletons. The venture capital managers at Raviga relieve Richard of his CEO status because Pied Piper is “too valuable” to trust to someone so green, but it’s not like anyone on Silicon Valley is actually qualified for those three capital letters. (Anyone who isn’t already employed by Raviga, that is—doesn’t it seem like Amanda Crew’s Monica should be calling the shots by now?) The biggest of the show’s bosses, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) begins season three with a mea culpa, cutting through techbiz “failure = success” mumbo jumbo to tell his nattering Hooli underlings “Sometimes failure is just failure.” But when he stumbles upon a harebrained scheme to recover the company’s losses, he’s back to his impulsive and vindictive ways, looking no more the leader than the show’s poster boy for failing upward, Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti (Josh Brener).

That anti-authoritarian streak produces a television series rich with sympathy and screen time for the foot soldiers. Nanjiani and Starr continue to challenge Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale for the title of HBO’s top double act, and their spotlight scene in the premiere adds a new acronym to the show’s lexicon of devastatingly honest, devastatingly funny shorthand. Erlich’s incubator has lost its primary clients/residents, but the guys can’t quite escape the orbit of that mid-century ranch: Jared can’t go home due to a hostile Airbnb situation, and Erlich’s place turns into a rendezvous point for the Pied Piper engineers as they plot out the solution to their Jack problem, which leads the season’s third episode down an entertaining, heist-movie-esque path. This means less time spent among the drones at Hooli, but Jack’s got your back there, hiring a sales staff that would’ve gotten along great at Initech. Silicon Valley’s ear for meaningless conference room jargon remains unmatched, and the sales force’s way of introducing itself quickly morphs into a tickling rhythmic device.

The ensemble grows, but Judge and Berg are wise to preserve Richard’s place at the center of Silicon Valley. This is still the story of a protagonist with a good idea, noble intentions, and ample vulnerabilities. It’s those first and third qualities that make him a rarity in the Silicon Valley universe, which makes for some big laughs when the character is exploring his options in the season premiere. (In the face of one developer’s impractical app, Middleditch puts on a highlight reel of facial expressions barely keeping emotional reactions at bay.) The season’s first act sets up a battle for the soul of Pied Piper—and, by extension, Richard Hendricks. Anyone who reigns over their own domain on Silicon Valley got there by sacrificing some of their humanity (Jack, Gavin, the rival engineers hellbent on recreating Pied Piper’s revolutionary makeup), possessing Vulcan-like logic and savant-level foresight (the late Peter Gregory, his replacement Laurie Bream), or posing for the cover of Wired in the emperor’s new clothes (poor, oblivious Big Head). Amid the precision-tooled dick jokes and the airtight comedies of errors, Silicon Valley cuts the compelling tale of a creator forging his own path through a frontier where every other maverick is a charlatan—or worse, some fucking asshole.

Reviews by Les Chappell will run weekly.