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HBO’s Silicon Valley is struggling to stay relevant

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With the tech industry undergoing rapid change, and many of its issues becoming political, the show can’t always keep up

Image: HBO

Through its first four seasons on HBO — and now, well into season 5 — the sitcom Silicon Valley has been a vital, riotously funny counter to the mainstream media’s glowing profiles of tech industry titans. Silicon Valley creator Mike Judge clearly admires the vision and genius of the people who shaped companies like Apple, Google, Twitter. But Silicon Valley is first and foremost a satire, meant to lampoon the culture and personalities of these computer whizzes, with their volatile mix of messiah complexes, hierarchical bullying, and crippling self-doubt.

Something unexpected has happened over the course of the past year or so, though. The headlines about the real Silicon Valley have become stranger and more dramatic than the TV version.

Just consider some of what’s been going on recently with the tech sector. Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify to Congress about Russian trolls’ efforts to spread disinformation. Donald Trump publicly called for Amazon’s deal with the Postal Service to be reevaluated. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have rattled the traditionally male-dominated tech industry. And above all, there’s a nagging concern that we’ve ceded too much of our privacy to social media, and too much of our decision-making to algorithms.

Image: HBO

Silicon Valley’s fifth season hasn’t ignored any of this, exactly. The opening credits this year include a sly visual gag where the Facebook logo briefly switches over to Cyrillic letters. A major plot arc this season involves the show’s primary protagonist, Richard Hendricks, trying to develop a new internet, partnering with sites that honor his pledge not to collect users’ information. And, as always, Silicon Valley’s dominant theme remains the arrogance of innovators, who get distracted by petty point-scoring battles, and who cockily presume their talents in one area must be universally applicable.

The way this season has illustrated the latter point hasn’t been to spoof any one person (like, say, Peter Thiel, with his ongoing efforts to “disrupt” politics and the free press). Instead, Judge and his writers have spent much of season 5 pitting characters against each other who’ve been feuding since the beginning. Richard’s coder pals, Gilfoyle and Dinesh, keep pulling elaborate pranks on each other, even when it keeps them from doing their jobs. Their company, the upstart Pied Piper, remains at war with the monolithic Hooli, whose CEO, Gavin Belson, admitted in a recent episode that even he’s not sure why he’s still trying to bury Richard.

To be fair, Silicon Valley has always been specific about the details of tech culture, without necessarily being politically topical. The show often tackles something uniquely absurd about a hot technology or business model — as it did earlier in season 5, when Richard single-handedly killed a booming pizza delivery app by exploiting its Uber-like subsidized pricing. But Judge’s style of comedy tends to skewer types and tendencies, rather than picking apart real people.

For the most part, that’s fine. The series is still funny this year, and it still features deft storytelling. Unlike a lot of cable sitcoms, Silicon Valley favors cleverly constructed narratives, with sharp twists. It rarely shambles or coasts on attitude.

Image: HBO

But something’s a little off in season 5. Going into the year, some fans wondered if the show could weather the loss of comedian T.J. Miller, who played the hilariously bloviating, pot-smoking oaf Erlich Bachman. But Miller’s particular ragged energy hasn’t really been missed that much, at least in the story being told. (And given the accusations of sexual harassment and assault filed against him, his presence in the show this season would just be an unwelcome distraction.) Instead, there’s another elephant in the room — or, more accurately, elephants. The problem is everything the show isn’t making jokes about: sexual harassment scandals, the net neutrality debate, the Trump administration’s efforts to aid companies friendly to the president and stifle those that aren’t.

This will be a shorter-than-usual Silicon Valley season, with only eight episodes instead of 10. With just two episodes remaining this year, the show is gradually beginning to regain at least some relevance. The fifth episode, “Facial Recognition,” introduced a company experimenting with advanced AI. In the process, that storyline captured the industry’s of-the-moment conversations about the ethics and dangers of artificial intelligence.

Also, the way the AI lab’s founder treated his robot creation — like a sex slave, cut off from all other human contact — almost came close to being a #MeToo moment, for a series that’s been notably slack about remarking on tech’s hinky gender issues. (In a pre-season interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Judge’s writing / producing partner Alec Berg said the writers talk about gender imbalance all the time, but they have yet to find a good comedic take.)

Image: HBO

Episode 6, “Artificial Emotional Intelligence,” abruptly dropped the robot character, before it could serve much of a satirical purpose. So far in 2018, the definitive TV takedown of artificial intelligence remains The X-Files episode “Rm9sbG93ZXJz,” which found the dark humor in the way our current world of “helpful” robotic pals run our lives. That 43 minutes of X-Files (minus commercials) is funnier and more on-point than the three total hours of Silicon Valley that have aired this year.

But “Artificial Emotional Intelligence” did take one of this season’s simmering subplots to a more pertinent place. The stubbornly ambitious Chinese-born designer Jian-Yang has been looking all season for ways to exploit other people’s work and get rich quick, like his longtime foil Erlich Bachman used to do. Jian-Yang has settled on copying popular American technologies for a Chinese market lax about patent protection. In the process, he’s stumbled on a way to knock off Richard’s new internet, and he may beat Pied Piper to market.

Chinese infringement on American patents is a real, ripped-from-the-headlines issue, bedeviling the tech industry. It’s also flummoxed the US government, which has been divided over how best to coerce China into compliance. It’s doubtful that the last two Silicon Valleys this season will mention the words “Trump,” “tariff,” or “trade war” in relation to the Jian-Yang storyline, but at least the show is moving into fresher, more fertile territory. The season’s seventh episode will center around cryptocurrencies, also a hot topic of the moment, albeit not as controversial as sexual abuse or the nation’s political divide.

By no means is it essential that Judge and Berg change what Silicon Valley has always been. This is a comedy about cartoonish characters, and it derives much its humor from painfully awkward situations, rooted in the true-to-life quirks of its milieu. Silicon Valley is wry and raunchy, not a political screed.

That said, when the series launched, it seemed more hip than it does now — at least regarding the personality conflicts, deadline stresses, corner-cutting, and out-of-control hype that collectively keep one of America’s most successful business sectors from realizing its full potential. Until recently, season 5 has felt more like yesterday’s tech news, and not something generated in 2018. But with the introduction of AI and patent-theft into the story, Silicon Valley may finally, belatedly return to the cutting edge.