With the whole world on edge Sunday night, waiting to find out whether Jon Snow is as dead as HBO insists he is, Silicon Valley quietly sneaked its way back into our living rooms and instantly demonstrated why it has become one of TV’s funniest comedies.
Yes, Veep may the show that finally stole Modern Family’s Best Comedy Emmy crown, but it is Mike Judge’s satire on the tech industry that deserves an award for most improved since it first premiered two years ago. It’s not that Silicon Valley was ever bad, but given the glut of comedy talent behind the scenes (Judge, Seinfeld writer Alec Berg) and in front of the camera (a murderer’s row of Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, Zach Woods and more) it always seemed to be falling just shy of its full potential.
The first major high point of the series didn’t come until the final episode of the first season. As the Pied Piper team prepares to present its file compression platform at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, the guys get distracted with a hypothetical question about the shortest amount of time it could take Miller’s Erlich Bachman to jerk off all 800 men in the audience.
After hours of theoretical discussion and whiteboard diagrams, they arrive at a game-changing solution: a four dicks at a time in a “middle-out” system, which, of course, becomes the technical breakthrough they were looking for all along to decrease the compression time for their platform.
During its second season, Silicon Valley was never quite able to reach this level of comedic brilliance, but in Sunday’s premiere there is a scene that comes close, if on a much smaller scale.
Middleditch’s Richard Hendricks, demoted from CEO to CTO of his own company in the final moments of Season Two, has decided he wants to quit Pied Piper. “You have created a company that is too valuable for you to run, you should feel good about that,” his investor, Laurie Bream tells him. He assumes that his loyal engineers, Nanjiani’s Dinesh and Starr’s Gilfoyle, will follow him out the door. But they aren’t quite sure they are ready to give up everything they’ve worked for and are starting to get pissed at their friend for failing to properly manage the company.
Seated outside by the pool at night, Dinesh and Gilfoyle attempt to express their concerns to each other, but they keep prefacing those thoughts with comments like “Richard is a great guy,” a “great coder” and an “amazing human being.”
“Look, we have a lot of shit we want to say about him. Do we have to keep prefacing it with this nice guy stuff?” Gilfoyle asks. He suggests using a “dictionary patch” to compress the caveats and save time. They decide to go with “Richard is great but, you know” or “RIGBY.”
This leads to a hilarious conversation that includes lines like “Why the fuck should we give up our Pied Piper shares right when we get funded because he’s too much of a prima donna to let someone experienced come in and run the company like it’s supposed to be run? RIGBY!” and “We put in so much work for no pay and now he thinks he’s going to walk out on us? I mean, seriously, fuck that guy. Fuck him! RIGBY!”
Later in the episode, when Richard tells them off for saying they want to stay, Gilfoyle deadpans, “We are now living in a post-RIGBY world.”
Ultimately, the guys figure out that they can’t scale up Pied Piper’s tech without its mastermind. “We each know 90 percent of the platform, but it’s the same 90 percent,” Dinesh says to Gilfoyle. They have no choice but to take a stand and say they walk if Richard walks, despite all the horrible things he said to them.
Meanwhile, Richard, the “belle of the ball,” as Woods’ Jared puts it, is not satisfied with the other job options on the table. His most promising offer comes from a company called FlutterBeam, which is developing a top secret app that puts digital mustaches on users (though sometimes they end up on your ear... they’re still working on it.)
Richard agrees to at least have a short meeting with Jack Barker, the man who has been hired to take over his CEO position at Pied Piper. At the beginning of the episode, he petulantly insults his middle-aged replacement for starting a foundation in his mother’s name to cure cancer. “Yeah, I bet his mother’s dead,” Richard says when he finds out.
“That’s probably why he started the foundation,” Dinesh replies.
When we finally meet Barker, played by Stephen Tobolowsky, whom you likely know as Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day. Here, he makes the ideal Big Bad for this season of Silicon Valley, supplanting a diminished Gavin Belson, who is busy making massive layoffs at Hooli. A seemingly benevolent (but ultimately disastrous) adult brought in to keep an eye on the children attempting to launch a billion-dollar company, he’s basically Google’s Eric Schmidt, but funnier.
Barker’s true evil is not revealed until later in the season, when he starts hiring a massive salesforce to sell his big idea—a “box” that helps corporate server farms work faster—instead of the consumer platform Richard has been trying to build since the beginning. This major conflict sets up a rivalry that helps drive the early part of the season’s action when the guys decide to “go all Ocean’s Eleven on his ass.”
Like many classic sitcoms, it has taken Silicon Valley until its third season to truly hit its stride. While some casts, like those of Seinfeld or Friends, seem to gel right away, others take a good deal longer to fall into place. Especially shows with larger ensembles—the U.S. version of The Office, Parks and Recreation and even Veep all come to mind—the better you know the characters, the funnier the episodes become.
By this point, viewers know enough about each of the five main characters that new comedic opportunities emerge. In the third episode of the season, Dinesh suddenly starts wearing a gold chain around his neck. Our existing expectations about how each of the four other guys will react are effortlessly fulfilled or subverted to perfection. It’s the type of humor through familiarity that only a long-running show can achieve.
No one knows just how long Silicon Valley can maintain its esoteric satire of tech culture. But for now, it has definitely reached its comic sweet spot.