"Silicon Valley" powers down for the last time, silently

Still funny but not the conversation starter it once was, its quiet end may become the norm for most series endings

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 8, 2019 11:00AM (EST)

Zach Woods, Thomas Middleditch, Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani in "Silicon Valley" (Eddy Chen/HBO)
Zach Woods, Thomas Middleditch, Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani in "Silicon Valley" (Eddy Chen/HBO)

A strong launch only means so much in television. The true measure of a series' legacy is how it ends.

But in 2019, making that determination feels different somehow. It is especially strange to witness long-running series such as "Silicon Valley," ending its six-season run this Sunday, close up shop without much fanfare. Veteran series go out quietly all the time; it's the natural order of things.

Viewers only have a certain amount of bandwidth to devote to keeping up with their shows – especially in this era of "more and more" and "whoa, that's way too much." One-time conversation starters get replaced by shiny new distractions every season. Scratch that – now it's every month.

But the humble ending of this HBO comedy, though announced some time ago, feels different for several reasons that are indicative of what a crazy, transformative, and transitional year 2019 has been for TV in general. And the extreme hype propelling "Game of Thrones" through its finale season is only, in part, one of them.

Ostensibly one show's ending has nothing to do with another – and in fact, "Exit Event," the "Silicon Valley" final episode, wraps the individual and shared stories of Richard (Thomas Middleditch), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), Jared (Zach Woods), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), Monica (Amanda Crew), and their collective nemesis Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) in a proper and satisfying way.

That is, they end up in a place that remains true to the comedy's underdog spirit while finding a way, karmically speaking, to grant the Pied Piper team success by way of failure.

The comedy's six season trajectory is nothing but a long parade of spectacular face-plants followed by incredible vertical jumps followed by another set of tumbles, each fall and rise more humiliating and euphoric than the last set.

In this way, the show's guiding star mirrors the tech industry's religion of "fail to succeed," an ethos that spurs innovation but also encourages a specific kind of mean and unsparing ruthlessness. It's also one version of a sitcom episode structure replicated time and again since 1990s, when co-showrunner Alec Berg wrote for "Seinfeld."

Berg, who wrote and directed Sunday's finale, learned enough from his experience on that iconic NBC comedy to ensure fans will leave his HBO show full of affection for it and his characters as opposed to a farewell smack across the face.

Even so, the fact that I'm evoking that old show might hint at why, in part, a show that averaged shy of 2 million viewers in better performing seasons is only netting around a quarter of that number on average during its swan song season. Situation comedy has changed greatly in form and structural presentation since "Silicon Valley" debuted in 2014, and while there's a security in finding a code that does the job and sticking with it, perhaps the show's reliable quality level led to a sense of sameness.

There's something to be said for that, mind you: I actually hadn't checked in on the series with any regularity in some time, and easily jumped right in and devoured the last season within hours. A show like "Silicon Valley" has a predictive ease to it.

Regardless of how long it's been since you've viewed it, Dinesh and Gilfoyle will still be hooked on their enduring love/hate affair, Jared can't move beyond his addiction to co-dependent enabling masquerading as assistance, Monica has to somehow keep everyone and everything looking normal, and Richard's utter lack of self-confidence will get in the way of his genius until a crisis forces him to pull off some kind of godlike coding wizardry. That's a wonderful recipe for syndication success. But it also hints at a lack of innovation and freshness, as if this were a comedy appendage from a recent bygone era.

Not that there's anything wrong with that! Didn't Netflix fork over $100 million in 2018 to keep on streaming "Friends" for one more year? That's "Friends," a decidedly '90s sitcom populated with characters whose manner of speaking, personality, and emotional ticks were utterly predictable. Did that really happen? Why yes it did.

The relationship between the actual Silicon Valley and the larger public has changed too. No longer is it seen as a symbol of forward thinking and inventiveness, but one of the root causes and generators of massive wealth inequality. That, and tech-bro douchebags.

Middleditch was an inspired casting choice in 2014 due to his resemblance to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and other tech geek leaders. Now that Zuckerberg's face is synonymous with corroding our democracy by allowing propaganda and conspiracy theory to easily pass as news on his social media platform, maybe that's a liability.

"Silicon Valley" addresses this head-on in the final season by kicking it off with Richard testifying before Congress and pledging that Pied Piper – which after that long tail of failure and victory succeeds on a gigantic scale – will not exploit the public in the same way that Facebook, Amazon, Google, and others have. Naturally, recalling that cycle, his ability to keep that promise is soon proven to be beyond his control.

In 2014, the Pied Piper guys were dweebs, drones in the collective desperately scheming to bust out and break the wheel. Nowadays they represent a system responsible for stripping away our privacy and selling off our personal data and no matter how much effort series co-creator Mike Judge and Berg put into making these characters heroes, it's tough to make that palatable.

(Some may not even realize that's the source of their aversion. I couldn't put my finger on why the first episodes of "Silicon Valley" rubbed me the wrong way until I came back to them much later, when my burnout from working at a major tech-driven multinational corporation had subsided. Only then did I realize that the problem was that the show's accurate recreation of a tech company work environment was triggering a mild touch of PTSD.)

This is just a theory. To bring it back to Netflix and throw in: Amazon, Hulu, Apple TV+, Disney+ and every other streaming service out there, the main reason "Silicon Valley" is going out with a shush as opposed to a RussFest-level blowout is because it is one show among 700 or so vying for our attention. I suspect that as the streaming wars heat up and the content sea level continues to rise, muted exits are going to be increasingly standard for a show like this – a feature of the scripted show's lifespan, not a bug.

So think of it this way: In the same way that disgracefully departed castmember T.J. Miller's  Erlich Bachman was abandoned in Tibet at the end of Season 4 and has not been seen nor heard from since, "Silicon Valley" may leave the schedule a little more quietly than it entered. But it will be out there waiting for you to find when you're ready and still lives up to the reputation that, in days gone by, made it a disruptor.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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