These are the geeks who run our world: So why is “Silicon Valley” just another workplace comedy?

As HBO's start-up comedy starts its third season, it remains funny and sharp—but not essential, like it should be

Published April 24, 2016 7:30PM (EDT)

T.J. Miller and Thomas Middleditch in "Silicon Valley"   (HBO)
T.J. Miller and Thomas Middleditch in "Silicon Valley" (HBO)

Tonight, one of the funniest shows on television – in its quiet, nerdy way – will return: HBO's “Silicon Valley” will kick off its third season, reassembling its cast of intellectually brilliant, socially stunted techies and entrepreneurs. The season begins as Richard (Thomas Middleditch), perhaps the most awkward of the bunch, is fired from the leadership of Pied Piper, a company he started, and follows the chaos that ensues as he tries to find a new role. The rest of his posse alternately tries to encourage or undermine him in pitch-perfect displays of male primate behavior.

These characters are supposed to be in their 20s, but they behave like teenagers. Ehrlich (T.J. Miller) is an arrogant doper. Jared (Zach Woods) is a nice, lukewarm guy who’s often the butt of jokes he doesn’t quite get; he fights with Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), who dresses well and says mean-spirited things. Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) is a brilliant and deadpan Canadian. As a study of a geeky guy subculture, the show is not far off from “The Big Bang Theory,” which is to say, it’s consistently funny -- lighthearted, gently satiric, and basically friendly toward its characters. The show pokes fun at these guys for their various failings – Ehrlich is always lecturing people and has over-emphatic facial hair, Richard can barely make eye contact -- but they’re mostly lovable dorks.

The sole new major character this season is veteran executive “Action” Jack Barker, who comes in to save the company from the low ambitions and misfired idealism of its founders. Stephen Tobolowsky gives a great, nuanced performance as a guy who convinces everyone he can “scale” Pied Piper, but turns out to be more complicated than the reassuring father figure he seems at first. (I’m tempted, but I won’t spoil a bizarre scene involving a horse.)

There’s a lot to like in the three episodes HBO sent journalists, and in some ways it’s funnier than earlier seasons. But two problems that “Silicon Valley” had in the past are still around -- and, despite the fact that the show seems to be improving at the level of its acting and its dialogue, as well as widening its scope, they’re not getting any better. First, the series doesn’t have major female characters, despite a very strong turn by Suzanne Cryer as Laurie Bream, the head of the venture-capital firm that funds Pied Piper, and Amanda Crew as Monica, her assistant. Neither gets nearly as much screen time as she should. Silicon Valley startup culture is known for being male-dominated, but is it really this bad?

The show’s other problem is also one that “Silicon Valley” shares with the world it portrays: It’s insular. Most sitcoms are character studies to some degree, and the good ones know their limits. But the series is looking at what’s becoming the most powerful subculture in the country, and it rarely gets beyond their navels.

It’s not that these characters don’t think in big terms. In one of the first scenes in the new season, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), the hard-charging founder of the Google-like Hooli, gives a classic Silicon Valley lecture about how failure is really success before firing a whole wing of his company. He’s also got the weird opportunistic utopianism down cold. “If we can make your audio and video files smaller,” he offered in an earlier season, “we can make cancer smaller… And hunger. And AIDS.” But this is about as pointed as the satire gets.

As Pied Piper moves outside its incubator into a flashy office, the show is getting sharper and funnier. But the outside world still doesn’t seem to exist. That wouldn’t be a problem – it's also barely there in, say, either version of “The Office.” But these guys aren’t peddling paper: The people who work at tech companies are now major players in book publishing, in the music industry, in public education, in journalism and the media. They’ve changed the way San Francisco and much of Northern California feels, and what it costs. They've reshaped the U.S. economy.

They’ve done some great things and some awful things, and some things it will take us a decade to really figure out.

In the real Silicon Valley, the future, for better and worse, is taking shape. In “Silicon Valley,” the stakes in season 3 are, at least in its early episodes, mostly about a data compression box and Dinesh’s new gold chain.

The show, of course, doesn’t need to demonize its characters: The people who work in Silicon Valley are not all devils. Some of them are well-intentioned, some of them are nasty and selfish, but most of them are in that complicated place in between. But they are – to use one of their favorite phrases – changing the world.

Mike Judge, who created the show, spent some time at a Silicon Valley startup in the late ‘80s, and he’s clearly picked up some of its slang and self-conception quite well. But he was also there at a time when techie hijinks were a lot less consequential: What happened in those companies back then didn’t radically redraw people’s lives, at least not right away. But now we’re living in a world for which Silicon Valley is basically the capital.

“Silicon Valley” is a comedy, and its first job is to make viewers laugh. There’s only so much a sitcom can or should do to get at the larger implications of its characters’ actions. But it can go beyond just shrugging it off with “Boys will be boys.” Here’s hoping the rest of the season manages to widen the lens a little bit.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Digital Culture Editor's Picks Hbo Media Criticism Silicon Valley Tv U.s. Economy