Like clockwork, another season of Silicon Valley has been heralded by a tech industry snafu that could very well be viral marketing for Silicon Valley. This time, the embarrassment comes via Bloomberg’s casual ethering of Juicero, the $400 juicer funded by $120 million of venture capital that apparently isn’t much better than simply squeezing the company’s prepackaged bags by hand. The article inspires a near-identical mix of emotions as the fourth season of Mike Judge’s methodical satire, which also features a food-related enterprise massively overvalued by trigger-happy VCs. Those emotions: incredulity, schadenfreude, and underneath it all, a bone-deep depression that this is how our supposed best and brightest are spending their money and time.
On top of its consistent, dispiriting accuracy, though, Silicon Valley’s latest go-round also features a hefty dose of change, that most fetishized of commodities in Northern California. Last season’s climax saw Pied Piper once again reduced to four dudes in an incubator, after a brief interlude with cavernous offices and a hotshot CEO. This year, Judge and his team have hit the accelerator on a series long defined by its inertia. The first few episodes of this season of Silicon Valley see more momentum, whether forward or downward, than the rest of the series to date. To use the jargon this show’s creators have dedicated themselves to clowning: Silicon Valley has disrupted itself.
One of Silicon Valley’s main comic engines has been the contrast between the overnight-success myth the Valley loves to propagate — the best ideas will rise to the top, and quickly — and the maddening drudgery of actually getting a company off the ground. (Or, as an investor in the fourth season premiere puts it: “Really? Is it hard to become a billionaire? Welcome to the Valley, assholes.”) Pied Piper isn’t an unstoppable juggernaut. It’s a delicate flower, one that could easily be crushed by a frivolous lawsuit, or a profit-minded executive, or a user-unfriendly interface that drives its own employees to fraud. The show’s trajectory, or lack thereof, was also a way of fitting an ostensibly serialized comedy into the rhythms of a sitcom, where the status quo is sacred.
Late in Season 3, however, Silicon Valley finally crossed the Rubicon it had been building to all series: the public debut of Pied Piper, and the potentially game-changing compression algorithm that powered it. That debut, which featured an inaccessible interface that left non-engineers confused as to what Pied Piper actually did, may have been disastrous for the show’s characters, but it’s paid off handsomely for the actual show. Inertia may be a fine engine for parody, but action allows the series to cover more real estate of its not-so-beloved Valley in less time than it ever has before.
To refrain from spoilers, I’ll keep the details vague, but in the span of just three episodes, Pied Piper’s newfound notoriety has unleashed a dizzying stream of twists and turns. One character spends an episode gleefully playing the part of upstart CEO, even developing a signature hairdo for his TV interviews before his inevitable fall. After three seasons defending his increasingly precarious position with increasingly large live animals, Gavin Belson (head of Google stand-in Hooli) finally experiences a decisive shift in position at the hands of a rival, giving us an entertaining look at high-level status jockeying. The alliances and divisions that traditionally mark the show are in flux, with Pied Piper’s belly flop fracturing its core team and its David-Goliath arrangement with Hooli dissipating along with Gavin’s clout. Much like Pied Piper, which reshaped itself as a video chat company at the end of last season in an effort to package Richard’s algorithm in a way lay users could understand, Silicon Valley is reinventing itself on the fly.
The shifts and rapid reversals make for relatively exciting viewing after years of teeth-grinding frustration for the central cast. They also reflect a fundamental truth. Meteoric rises and equally dramatic declines may not be a universal experience in the Valley, but as Elizabeth Holmes could tell you, they’re certainly more common in tech than in other industries. Such are the occupational hazards of incentivizing innovation rather than standards-enforced stability. Most importantly, however, Silicon Valley’s newly invigorated plot opens up storytelling possibilities that put its already top-shelf components to novel and entertaining use.
Silicon Valley has at its disposal the most formidable roster of comic actors of any show currently on television. With Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, and Zach Woods on your payroll — plus pinch hitters like Suzanne Cryer’s robotic capitalist and Andy Daly’s cheerful doctor — it’d be tempting to simply let their chemistry play out in the same dynamics it always has. Indeed, Silicon Valley doesn’t break the mold too much: Dinesh and Gilfoyle will always hate each other; Erlich will always have the biggest ego and the most interesting facial hair of anyone in the room. The show shakes things up just enough to avoid getting stale, because if any show on TV understands the dangers of stasis, it’s a borderline-anthropological study of contemporary tech.
The show also preserves its welcome mix of relevance and escapism, which feels unique to the present TV comedy moment. Unlike its close cousin Veep, which strenuously avoids topicality only to accidentally fall into it on occasion, Silicon Valley embraces its reality-adjacency with both arms, bringing on consultants and populating its backgrounds with real-life techies. And unlike the rest of the prestige comedy landscape, the show actively pursues a sillier, stupider sense of humor, driven as much by jokes and pratfalls as emotional brutality (looking at you, Love — and also Veep). The tone remains steady even when the content does not.
To that end, Silicon Valley has engaged in some creative destruction of its own. The show crawled up to the unveiling of Pied Piper as Richard Hendricks initially envisioned it, then ripped off the Band-Aid to expose that vision’s gaping flaws to the entire Valley (and Richard himself) almost immediately. From the ashes of Piper 1.0, Silicon Valley’s fourth season is free to build a wild, weird, reliably unreliable new state of affairs for the socially inept beta bros at its center. They’re still floundering — just in a bigger body of water.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.