Over the past three seasons, HBO’s Silicon Valley has been chronicling the rise and fall (and sort of rise again) of the almost accidentally successful, middle-out tech company Pied Piper and the sometimes-genius engineers who helped bring it stumbling into existence. Like its fellow premium channel sitcom Veep, Silicon Valley employs a highly serialized storyline, transforming what might otherwise be thought of as a superb workplace comedy into a series that, increasingly, feels focused on the arc of the characters involved, rather than maintaining a semblance of the situation that kicked the series off in the first place. And like Veep, which recently underwent a narrative reboot of sorts by bringing perpetual runner-up Selina Meyer’s political career to a close, launching what is essentially the lead character’s ongoing narrative into unknown territory, while maintaining various levels of sameness with the rest of the ensemble, Silicon Valley does something similar with the season 4 premiere ‘Success Failure’.
In a weird twist, the fixed positions of the majority of the ensemble allows the series to embark on a necessary new storyline through a significant departure from the norm for a single character – in this case Thomas Middleditch’s Richard Hendricks. The end of season 3 saw the troubled start up he inadvertently created fall into the hands of pot-smoking incubator owner Erlich Bachman after a series of poor decisions saw him facing both financial ruin and public humiliation. It was the kind of radical twist of fate that the show has implemented in each of its season finales, saving the characters’ collective bacon to ensure the overarching narrative can and will continue, albeit with the certain changes meant to keep things interesting when the series returns.
Now, at the start of season 4, Silicon Valley faces a decision of sorts: Does it continue trying to make Pied Piper happen after 30 episodes of watching Richard, Erlich, Dinesh, Jared (or Donald), and Gilfoyle repeatedly tempt outright failure only to fall ass backwards into success, or does it try to launch another high-risk venture destined to “make the word a better place”? That question makes the premiere’s title perhaps the most appropriate in series history, but it also gives a series tilting towards repetition a fresh start that’s set to take advantage of the rich, comedic world Mike Judge, Alec Berg, and others have helped bring to life over the past three seasons.
Over the course of its run, the series has worked to refine its storytelling as much as the particular brand of humor at its core. At the start of season 4, all the fine-tuning is apparent in the way callbacks to previous jokes are seamlessly worked into conversation, and the story picks up from the events of the season 3 finale without much in the way of exposition. The result, then, is a comedy clearly focused on doing what so few comedies ever really need to worry about: moving things forward without much of an obvious safety net. As such, when Richard announces his intention to leave Pied Piper behind, in order to focus on a project he’s passionate about rather than Dinesh’s PiperChat, it genuinely feels like Silicon Valley is shaking things up in a good, if not entirely unfamiliar way.
The change also brings with it a mostly superficial change of the power dynamic in Erlich’s incubator. After the power- and status-hungry creator of Aviato fails to secure the position of CEO and fails to convince Big Head’s dad of… well, anything, the position falls to Dinesh on Richard’s recommendation – after Dinesh gets approval from Gilfoyle, of course. Those character dynamics are important to the success of Silicon Valley, and the show has demonstrated an ability to tinker with them when necessary and when to fall back on them for a good laugh. Season 3 brought out the more rebellious spirit in the otherwise withdrawn and awkward Richard, as he fought for control of his company and his vision in the face of Stephen Tobolowsky’s Jack Barker and his data storage box. Season 4 builds off of Richard’s adventures in entrepreneurship; it gives him a clear challenge ahead while the rest of the PiperChat crew remains humorously the same. In a premiere loaded with funny jokes the winner might just be Dinesh asking Gilfoyle permission to be CEO.
‘Success Failure’ also finds… success in further exploring the depths of Gavin Belson’s pettiness and his lunacy. Last season, Gavin nearly lost his status at Hooli after a string of failures and a penchant for elaborate metaphors that made use of live animal props failed to impress the company’s board. This time, he sends Hoover (Chris Williams) on a series of intercontinental flights on a chartered private jet to determine whether or not Jack wasted 28 minutes of Hooli’s time in asking to be dropped off in Jackson Hole before Gavin could reach his destination.
Like the crew at the former (and possibly future Pied Piper), the character of Gavin has proven surprisingly nimble over the course of the first three seasons. What seemed like a run-of-the-mill one-and-done joke about the Valley and its tech leaders has turned into a surprisingly funny and effective look at obsession and privilege justified by exorbitant wealth. And as Richard embarks on his journey to build a new internet, it seems as though Silicon Valley is positioning Gavin and even the sub-basement dwelling Jack Barker to cross paths with the tainted CEO at some point during the season.
Some comedies get stale over time, as their core joke no longer packs the same punch it did when the series first began. That was a concern with Silicon Valley at the start of season 4. How many different ways could the show skewer the tech world and self-important venture capitalists (Chris Diamantopoulos’s Russ Hanneman remains gloriously unchanged in the season premiere) and still seem fresh? It seems the show has figured out how to do just that by simply tinkering with the goals of its main characters and seeing whether or not they succeed or fail.
Silicon Valley continues next Sunday with ‘Terms of Service’ @10:30pm on HBO.