Over the course of three years, HBO’s Silicon Valley has presented its Northern California milieu as a microcosm of corporate America, a place where ambition fuels creativity and ruthless competition is the ever-present norm. Given that it’s also a comedy from the mind of Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead, Office Space, Idiocracy), it’s been a subculture critique of a decidedly hilarious sort. That hasn’t changed for its fourth season, which once again locates the dark, ridiculous heart of the tech industry through the saga of its clownish wannabe-moguls, who—in every instance—continue to embody the show’s fundamental belief that ego is the thing most responsible for the industry’s (and humanity’s) greatest innovations and failures.
Returning this Sunday, Silicon Valley picks up right where it left off, with Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his merry band of coding compatriots—Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), Big Head (Josh Brener), Jared (Zach Woods) and incubator entrepreneur Erlich (T.J. Miller)—up shit’s creek after the spectacular flameout of their Pied Piper compression platform, courtesy of a scandal involving fudged user stats. With his reputation in ruins, Richard is re-introduced in Season Four posing as an Uber driver to get an impromptu meeting with a venture capitalist in an effort to secure funding for the video chat app that Dinesh created, and which is now seeing impressive early numbers. This kidnapping-lite scenario goes predictably poorly, thus forcing him to turn to wacko billionaire Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopoulos), who—sensing that Richard’s heart isn’t into “Piperchat”—provides him with some unexpectedly inspiring advice: Work on something about which you’re truly passionate.
That something, Richard realizes, is a free, decentralized “new internet,” devoid of the corporatization that has marred our current version of the network. The idea so possesses him that he decides [minor spoilers follow] to quit Piperchat—which is fine by the rest of the crew, who have at that very moment decided to fire Richard because his presence is stymieing their ability to raise vital VC capital. Not that they’re separating in any real sense; while Silicon Valley proceeds to chart both Richard’s efforts to create his improved internet, and Piperchat’s struggles to survive under the leadership of Dinesh (whose elevation to CEO is agreed to by Gilfoyle primarily for the crash-and-burn comedic possibilities it affords), the characters all still live under Ehrlich’s roof, bickering and collaborating in generally the same manner as before.
Providing new avenues for its characters while retaining its core structure and dynamics is essential to Silicon Valley’s enduring funniness, and that also extends to its focus on Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), the Hooli mogul whose pretentious narcissism is married to titanic pettiness. The latest target of Gavin’s vindictive idiocy is Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky), whose triumph at a China meeting is quickly rendered moot when he forces their private jet to prioritize his drop-off destination ahead of Gavin’s. It’s an example of one man’s self-importance begetting spitefulness in another, and quickly drives Gavin to relocate Jack to a new “office” in the Hooli sub-basement where—as we also see in a brief glimpse of Raviga Capital’s Monica (Amanda Crew)—the indignity of demotion is compounded by the office’s prime view into the men’s bathroom.
Silicon Valley remains a portrait of the equally positive and negative results of egomania. On the plus side, Richard, Erlich, Gavin, and everyone else in the Valley (save for the stumbling-backward-into-success Big Head) can credit their crowning achievements to their unwavering belief that their tech ideas are surefire game-changers and, moreover, that they’re the people best suited to develop them into industry sensations. Judge’s series recognizes that modernization, and revolution, springs forth from individuals’ wholehearted conviction in their novel concepts and creations (which seem foolhardy to most, at least at first), and then their willingness to risk everything to turn their dreams into reality.
At the same time, however, Silicon Valley is an unending process of catastrophes, interrupted only by the occasional minor victory. It’s thus no surprise to find that, under Dinesh’s stewardship, Piperchat’s budding fortunes are demolished by a legally (and morally) ruinous problem. Or that Gavin’s plan to force an apology out of Jack Barker compels him to make a deal that puts his entire career in jeopardy. Or, for that matter, that even Dinesh’s new girlfriend comes with a potentially troublesome catch. The show derives its caustic humor from its basic understanding—repeated in one amusing storyline after another—that (male) vanity is, on average, more apt to lead to ruin than to riches.
Silicon Valley is also hilarious because of its highly attuned familiarity with its environment, whose absurdities are ripe for good-natured ridicule—such as a scene from the season’s third episode (the last one provided to critics) in which Richard and Monica visit a grocery store solely populated by people whose tech company job is to shop for their bosses. The nonsensical excess and screwy priorities of Silicon Valley are detailed with authentic specificity. Yet they’re all the wittier for being emblematic of typical big-business nonsensicalities, as when Big Head’s wholesale lack of qualifications to get into Stanford naturally prove to be less important for his admission chances than his prior, wholly undeserved Wired magazine fame.
Most impressive, however, is that the show—blessed with arguably the finest comedy cast on TV—continues to build upon its characters’ well-established relationships to create unique opportunities for insanity. There’s a pitch-perfect harmony struck between Middleditch’s fidgety-fumbly routine, Nanjiani and Starr’s sarcastic love-hate rapport, Woods’ sycophantic-weirdo turn, and Miller’s cock-of-the-walk idiot bluster. And there’s consistent comedy brilliance in the contentious back-and-forths between Miller’s Erlich and Jimmy O. Yang’s Jian-Yang, which never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Still, it’s hard to remember a funnier recent moment on TV than the sight of Nanjiani’s Dinesh, suddenly consumed with CEO-grade arrogance, sporting a new wannabe-stylish, hair product-enabled hairdo—an image of misguided egomania run amok that sums up everything sharp and silly about Silicon Valley.