Photo: Ali Paige Goldstein (HBO)

As it begins its fifth season, Silicon Valley finds itself at a disadvantage for a variety of reasons. It’s coming off a fourth season that had its moments, but that was repeatedly criticized for its inability to commit to the fresher narratives it introduced. It’s satirizing an industry whose public perception in the last year has gone from amusingly disconnected from reality to nauseatingly misogynistic and downright toxic. And with the departure of T.J. Miller it’s also lost the character of Erlich Bachman, long treated as an essential part of the show’s ecosystem and key to the arc of Richard Hendrix.

But Silicon Valley has always been a show that’s praised innovation in the face of impossible odds, and there’s the real chance that these problems will allow the show to shift its focus in ways it’s needed to for some time. Miller’s departure, for instance, frees the show from having to find something to do with the increasingly unmoored Erlich—and according to Mike Judge, also helps the work environment considerably. There’s still a sharp writing team and one of the best comedic ensembles on television present, and the only thing holding the show back from finding its next level is nothing beyond their own fear of stepping outside the comfort zone.

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“Grow Fast Or Die Slow,” the fifth season premiere, isn’t an instant cure-all adjustment for the show, but it does show the flickers of Silicon Valley moving into new territory. Literally, in fact, as the majority of the episode takes place in Pied Piper’s new offices and it’s almost fifteen minutes before we even set foot inside Erlich’s house. The constant backsliding of Pied Piper has turned into a joke all on its own, and at a certain point they needed to grow up or it strains all credulity. Now, the team is trying to operate as a real business, and operating on their own without an antagonistic overseer or investor to pin their problems on—a place where they need to be at this stage of the game. And if the strength of that cold open is any indication, there’s no reason the growing pains can’t be hilarious.

While they’re moving into new environments, the show is still able to play to its strengths in those environments. Martin Starr and Academy Award nominee for Best Original Screenplay Kumail Nanjiani maintain their belligerent symbiosis, as Gilfoyle and Dinesh dissect each of Richard’s picks for new engineers and then blame him for said dissection leading to no hires. (Beyond their three “stallions” that is. It’s never not funny when they take a moment to lean back and observe the nondescript with pride.) And Zach Woods continues to be the show’s MVP, supporting Richard with Julia Roberts film metaphors and continuing to deliver horrifying one-liners in benign tones.

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The main arc of the premiere belongs to Richard though, and we get a sense of the new conflicts that will be dominating this stage of his professional development. Repeatedly stymied in his efforts to hire new employees, he tries to engineer a partial takeover of one failing start-up, only to see it snatched up by another upstart company who’s pioneering a pizza delivery app. (“It was so stupid, it would make you hate pizza.”) Thomas Middleditch’s versatility has been one of the best discoveries of Silicon Valley, and he gets to play every one of Richard’s better beats in the premiere. Just a bit too smug when negotiating, uncontrollably profane when he’s thwarted, and engaging in some ace physical comedy when he tries to steal twenty pizzas and open the door at the same time. The latter interaction is particularly strong, Judge’s direction pacing the perfect amount of discomfort.

Photo: Ali Paige Goldstein (HBO)

And in the most promising development of the premiere, Richard engages in one of the beats that the writers appeared to abandon. Richard’s increased comfort with breaking bad was one of season four’s more interesting developments, and that’s the Richard we see once he discovers how short term Sliceline’s growth truly is. He’s willing to pour his venture capital into bankrupting the business, forcing a competitor out of business, and then sweeping up every employee save the two execs. For all of his tics and stammers, he’s learned how to play the game and defend his moves afterwards.

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Beyond the welcome character development, it also makes it easier to laugh at Richard’s misfortunes—one of which rears its head as he’s confronted with a workforce four times what he expected. This is the most promising direction that season five could go into, his efforts to say a few words leading to a near-public breakdown and a vomiting session that’s somehow even more public. (Rookie mistake, Richard: a private vomiting place is the first thing to secure in a new job.) Manager Richard is now sharing space with Manic Richard and Machiavellian Richard, and this new partner could be even more fun to watch. Richard having to spar with Dinesh and Gilfoyle is one thing, but a Richard who has to emerge from his cocoon and be a boss? That’s untilled narrative and comedic soil.

In terms of things that haven’t changed, Richard’s arch-nemesis Gavin Belson continues to be petty and rage-filled to a self-destructive extent. Again, most of the beats Gavin hits are familiar: blithely talking up his accomplishments as on par with the Great Pyramid of Giza, throwing money to hire all of the distributed systems developers that Richard’s interviewing, and then loudly screaming curses at them when they show zero interest in Box 2.0. What’s interesting this time around is that despite the familiarity, there’s something new hidden behind his cartoonish fear of aging. This new Internet that Richard’s trying to build might be a pipe dream, but it’s the pipe dream that people want to work on. And much as Silicon Valley needs to extend Pied Piper’s success beyond micro victories, it also needs to extend Gavin’s grudge against them beyond his narrow anger at being humiliated.

Photo: Ali Paige Goldstein (HBO)

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Another shift in power is taking place alongside the burned-out ruins of the palapa. Miller’s departure from the show means that there’s room for the other utility players to come out, and Jian-Yang is making a figurative and literal play for some of that real estate. With Erlich gone, his house is up for grabs, and Jian-Yang has expanded his squatters’ rights to encompass the entire house to allow various friends and family members to camp out. He even goes to Ron LaFlamme (a sadly brief but always welcome return of Superstore’s Ben Feldman) to try presenting Erlich’s will, only for Ron to pick up on all the non-Erlich phrases: “I want him to be leader of the house and control all the friends.”

That grab for the property shows that the writers have a lot of work to do if they want to move Jian-Yang up the roster. Erlich was such a supernova of dislikable ego that he soaked up most of the audience ire, and without that balance Jian-Yang comes across as a greedy asshole. Not that the descriptor couldn’t be applied to half of Silicon Valley’s cast, but they’ve had the advantage of showing other shades and motivations. Four seasons in, all we have to go off with Jian-Yang is a track record of lazy ethnic jokes and language barrier misunderstandings, and it’s hard to get invested in what he’s doing when he’s not interacting with the Pied Piper team.

They’re at least trying though, which is encouraging after the backtracking that’s been strung through the last couple of seasons. If Judge’s proposed six-season plan is true, Silicon Valley is closer to the end of its life than the beginning, and if it wants to change the status quo it’s going to need to do it sooner rather than later. “Grow Fast Or Die Slow” is good advice for the series, and it provides some opportunities to do just that. It remain to be seen if both Richard, and the show, have the fortitude to stick with it.

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Stray observations:

  • Welcome back to Silicon Valley coverage! Glad to be back for a fifth round of tech talk and dick jokes.
  • There is an elephant in the room I avoided mentioning in the review, but does need to be discussed: Miller’s exit from Silicon Valley was followed a few months later by disturbing accusations of sexual assault. Silicon Valley dodged a big bullet that the news came out after he’d already left the show, and thankfully they don’t have to answer the ugly questions that would have come up if he was still around. I’ll choose to be optimistic and hope if he was, the show would have made the right decision and cut ties with him immediately.
  • The opening titles have been updated yet again, with such additions as a fleet of Tesla Semis and a swiftly shuttered Juicero headquarters. Speak up in the comments if you noticed anything else.
  • Nice to see Silicon Valley start to acknowledge that in addition to all its other problems, real-life Silicon Valley has a not exactly secret alt-right population. One of whom applied to work at Pied Piper, is “obviously closeted,” and is “pretty involved in a campaign to eliminate black emojis.”
  • Laurie’s pregnancy from last season was evidently motivated by the desire to prove she could without missing a day of work, and it looks like she could. Suzanne Cryer’s delivery of “I induced this morning” is as close to emotive as Laurie’s ever been.
  • Best horrifying Jared line: “I know what it’s like to only be able to rescue half your family, and it’s awful.” Runner-up: “My stepmom said we never had pizza because Italians aren’t real white people.”
  • “Your inability to stop us from sucking is a failure of leadership.”
  • “Like, not one word of that made sense.”
  • This week’s closing track: “The Monkey,” The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

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