It’s all in the algorithm: In new season, “Silicon Valley” puts laughs in all the right places

The HBO comedy continues hacking tropes of drama and Silicon Valley

By Max Cea

Published April 22, 2017 10:30PM (EDT)

 (HBO/John P. Johnson)
(HBO/John P. Johnson)

“Silicon Valley” airs on Sundays at 10 p.m., a time when it’s typical for me to be dressed like T.J. Miller’s vainglorious dispenser of Tao and benefactor of board, Erlich Bachman (here or here or here). But when I watch “Silicon Valley” I often find myself putting on a figurative executive’s suit and asking, “But what is Pied Piper?”

Pied Piper, as anyone who’s watched the show knows, is the startup “Silicon Valley” is based around. It is the company that Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his gang of nebbishy nerds hope to build into the next Google or Facebook or, hell, Dropbox. But what exactly Pied Piper is beyond being a startup is nebulous. At first, it is an app to check music copyrights; then it becomes a cloud storage platform; and at the outset of Season 4, which debuts this weekend, it is a video chat app.

The reason the company has survived through several reincarnations despite the dramatic flubs of this gang of idiot geniuses is because of Richard’s compression algorithm — an algorithm to, essentially, process more data at a greater speed. Pied Piper’s value transcends its iterative form because a strong algorithm is vital to creating a strong product.

Television is like tech in that way. A show set in any universe — be it a police department, an ad agency, or a mythical world — can be successful so long as there is a strong algorithm in place. In its fourth season, “Silicon Valley” has that. What began as a satire built on LOL-ing at terms like “disruption” is now comfortable as a character comedy. You watch for Big Head and Bachman more than for the lampooning of startup buzzwords and stereotypes.

Which is not to say that the show’s creators, John Altschuler, Mike Judge and Dave Krinsky, have ceased mocking Silicon Valley. In “Success Failure,” this weekend’s episode, Hooli CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), has an assistant fly his personal jet on two routes five times to settle a minor dispute. Excessive? Petty? Yes and yes; Belson is a stand-in for the industry.

Richard, an aspirant, is also a stand-in for the industry — just the other end of it. He’s a young Mark Zuckerberg lookalike who glamorizes entrepreneurship. He sneers at Steve Jobs — “a poser [who] didn’t even write code” — but can’t escape his longing to be Steve Jobs, the original entrepreneur-as-artist.

In “Success Failure,” Richard subconsciously sabotages Pied Piper’s transition to becoming a video chat company. It may be his algorithm that propels the tech, but it wasn’t his idea to do video chat. It was Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), in Season 3, who hacked together the app in pursuit of a girl (the origin story of all great tech). Richard wants to be the boss and the creative genius; he doesn’t want to pursue someone else’s product. And so Richard and the gang are on a collision course — at least, until an old friend offers some sage advice: “If you’re going to spend all day fucking, shouldn’t Pied Piper be a dude you want to fuck?”

Aha, build a new internet, I shall! Richard concludes in not so many words.  

The emotional parting and the excited new beginnings is where most shows’ code would conclude episode, conclude season. When Richard and the guys agree to part ways, Jared (Zach Woods), ever Richard’s loyal Doberman, exchanges longing glances with him. Richard retreats to an office to be alone with his whiteboard, his cup of coffee and his dream. With a renewed swagger, he writes “New Internet?” on the board. The moment makes “Success Failure” feel more like a finale than an opener.

But “Silicon Valley” will always sacrifice drama at the stakes of humor. The episode circles back to the Belson flight gag, an editing choice clearly meant to communicate the show's priorities to the viewer. If you find yourself feeling warm and tingly about startups, check yourself. On this show, “Change the world” is an expression that computes as comedy. By the second and third episode, it sinks in that building a new internet is a wholly laughable idea. The “Silicon Valley” algorithm will hack your romantic dreaming and corrupt all internal files of the like.

By Max Cea


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