In the season three premiere of HBO’s Silicon Valley, former Pied Piper CEO Richard Hendricks finds himself courted by a mustache app. The recruiters from the tech startup — which is called Flutterbeam — want him for a secret project focused on 3D-holographic facial hair you can don during live-video chats. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the show’s humor — virtual facial hair is funny, sure; but it's even funnier because someone out there is likely working on it right this very minute (and they probably work for Snapchat.)
As the not-so-unrealistic show enters its third season, it’s embracing the tech industry’s absurdity more so than ever before. Now, Silicon Valley the series isn’t so much making fun of the real Silicon Valley as it is basking in how fictional (and laughable) the reality can look to outsiders.
'Silicon Valley' is embracing the tech industry's absurdity more than ever before
It still serves as a great antidote for the Kool-Aid-drinking startup crowd in desperate need of some self-awareness. But it also means the show is shifting its focus, inevitably moving the plot past its David versus Goliath beginning. So in search of new territory, creator Mike Judge is using his cozier relationship with the Bay Area to craft a narrative that draws upon infamous tech industry lore. Of course, the easiest and ripest theme in that vein is as old as the show’s namesake: the plight of the CEO.
As season two wrapped, Richard discovered the head of venture capital firm Reviga had orchestrated his removal as chief exec of Pied Piper, his promising but mismanaged compression startup. The season opener picks up right where the finale left off, and Richard spends the episode soul searching. Should he quit out of principle and work on holographic mustaches, or eat his pride and accept the offer to become Pied Piper’s chief technology officer? Making the decision harder is Reviga’s pick for CEO, the experienced and disarmingly polite "Action" Jack Barker, who charms Richard out of hating him.
It’s an interesting new wrinkle, mostly because it’s an age-old story. Being kicked out of your own company has happened to some of the industry’s most celebrated figures: Steve Jobs at Apple, Elon Musk at PayPal, Jack Dorsey at Twitter (and Evan Williams at Twitter… and Dick Costolo at Twitter). Even when the ouster fails, bitter legal fights have become subculture hallmarks. Mark Zuckerberg was sued by the Winklevoss twins over the founding of Facebook. A decade later, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel settled with co-founder Reggie Brown over his involvement in the messaging app’s early days.
Costolo's involvement is almost too sweet
A leader betrayed by his own ranks is a dramatic twist even Shakespeare appreciated. But it does carry a unique weight in tech, and it gives Judge and the writing team a deep pool of history to tap into and poke fun at. Helping the narrative this time around is Costolo himself, who went from heading up the beleaguered Twitter to consulting for HBO in a return to his comedic roots. (Costolo was involved in the Chicago improv scene after graduating college.)
His involvement is almost too sweet. The very idea of Costolo — a man who failed to turn around a company known for its shitshow leadership struggles — helping craft a parody of his plight feels like fiction. But he’s there to fact check just how Machiavellian these kinds of affairs can be. According to him, he has to tell Judge and crew to amp it up, not tone it down. Whether or not it works comedically, this new push for verisimilitude shows Silicon Valley is eager to expand its scope. That’s a much-needed new direction season three needs to travel if the show is to grow into something more than just lazy Sunday laughs.
Because even as it draws on the history of tech’s biggest titans, Silicon Valley is still holding itself back. Like early seasons of Entourage, another bro-heavy trade series, the show hasn’t yet figured out how big it wants to get. It’s unclear how many seasons HBO will grant it. Even if it does go six or seven long, it may not survive going as macro as, say, David Fincher’s The Social Network did as it followed Zuckerberg from the dorm room to the board room. And for as vapid as Entourage was, it did manage to satirize nearly every aspect of Hollywood while still serving as a vicarious fantasy of life as a successful, famous, straight dude.
It’s easy to imagine Pied Piper ballooning into some quasi-Google or an even more ludicrous version of Facebook, with Richard bumbling at the helm. The tech industry is so complex, sprawling, and ubiquitous that the show could reasonably take its band of characters to the moon on a SpaceX rocket or have them accidentally develop a malevolent artificial intelligence. In one of the first scenes of the premiere, Richard accidentally strikes a quadruped Stanford robot as it gallivants across the street in a tip to Google-owned robotics company Boston Dynamics. From the show’s inception, Judge has been paying attention to the public perception, and trepidation, of the industry.
But three seasons later, Silicon Valley is still a show about a tiny startup and its socially inept creator. Judge is not done telling the underdog story, and that’s okay for now. Tech companies take years to build, and the show’s dramatic side wouldn’t float unless there were real, believable obstacles to overcome. However, Silicon Valley will at some point have to decide how wide the lens goes. There’s only so many scenes you can shoot in the benign living room of ranch-style Palo Alto home.
Silicon Valley will have to decide how wide the lens goes
Yet the familiarity of the Pied Piper team's dynamic is also what makes the comedy feel more satisfying. T. J. Miller as Erlich Bachman, the team’s effusively egotistical and delusional advisor, still steals the show. Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani, who play dueling engineers Bertram Gilfoyle and Dinesh Chugta, are two wild embellishments on known stereotypes.
But it’s Zach Woods, who plays Richard’s fiercely loyal business-minded assistant Jared, who has grown into one of the most endearing TV characters in recent memory. When he’s not being the punchline of joke he doesn’t get, Woods’ motherly demeanor manages to squeeze in some much-needed heart among the dick jokes. And Thomas Middleditch as Richard still pulls off the nerd-stuffed-in-the-locker to cringe-worthy effect, even as he threatens to sue his investors for trying to oust him and seeks legal advice from his former lawyer-turned-prison inmate.
That central dynamic is a well-oiled machine by now, but the show still feels like it needs a bigger stage and better tools to play with. It may sound unreasonable to expect a half-hour TV show to take itself that seriously. But when the industry you’re lampooning is trying to cure death, go to Mars, and "connect" every person the planet, even a comedy should dare to rise to the challenge. Silicon Valley can do so much by transitioning from startups to the powerful corporations who actually are changing the world. Those are the companies and industry figures we need to satirize the most.