Earlier this month, on a clear, dry evening in Tempe, Arizona, a 49-year-old woman named Elaine Herzberg decided to cross the street with her bicycle. She never made it to the other side. A driverless Volvo XC90 owned by Uber—which, along with other tech companies like Lyft and Waymo was testing out unmanned cars on Arizona’s open roads due to a 2015 executive order lifting regulations in the state—hit her and she died shortly thereafter. The incident—the first fatality to involve a self-driving vehicle—caused an immediate maelstrom in and around the tech world; Uber suspended all of its testing in California, Toyota pulled all autonomous models off the road, and one of the founders of Otto, a self-driving car startup acquired by Uber and responsible for much of its new technology, suddenly left the company, though Uber claimed the split had nothing to do with the crash.
The day before the Tempe incident, the Guardian published a bombshell report about breaches of privacy at Facebook. A pink-haired whistleblower named Christopher Wylie admitted that, while he worked for the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, he harvested tons of private info from profiles that allowed him to turn Mark Zuckerberg’s invention into “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool” during the 2016 election. Suddenly, even people whose main interface with the Internet is checking Facebook are thinking of leaving Facebook.
It is a strange time for Silicon Valley to debut its fifth season, but also oddly apt. The HBO comedy has always been about laying bare the dark side of the tech business, the myriad ways that captains of industry so often lose control of their ships. If anything, there has never been a better time to satirize the hubris and folly that pervades the world of tech. Creator Mike Judge knows this: He was thinking of terminating the series after six seasons; now, as he told the New York Times, he could see it running as long as Dallas. “It’s taken on a second wind,” he said.
When Silicon Valley debuted in the spring of 2014, it thrived on satirizing the excesses of tech culture, seen through the adventures of Pied Piper, a little-startup-that-could launched by a rag-tag group of friends living in an “incubator” house near Palo Alto. The leader of the crew, Richard Hendricks (a delightfully twitchy Thomas Middleditch) is an awkward, cerebral ball of nerves. He is a genius programmer, whose innovative data compression algorithm shows instant promise and value, but is a terrible businessman. The other coders who make up Pied Piper’s oddball fraternity include the dueling duo of Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), who are locked into an ever-spinning hamster wheel of cruel pranks and undermining snark (they are the Mutt and Jeff of the South Bay, often in a separate slapstick sitcom of their own). Then there’s Jared (Zach Woods), a gawky, tender-hearted business brain who decamps from the tech juggernaut Hooli (the show’s Google cipher) to work for Pied Piper pro bono because he believes in Richard’s vision to a zealous, almost self-abnegating degree.
The main gang was rounded out with the boorish presence of Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), the landlord of the incubator house who, having sold one tiny startup to a VC firm, swaggers around the Valley like a puma prowling the foothills. Erlich was the super-ego of Silicon Valley, its most bombastic, and therefore divisive) character. He was often lunging into meetings uninvited, claiming territory for himself at the conference table. Constantly stoned, with a huge leonine mane, Erlich was the comic distillation of Silicon Valley’s insulated pomposity; despite having few talents outside of schmoozing, he felt entitled to success, destined for greatness, confident that he would come up with an idea that would change the very way that humans live. Other characters floated in and out of the mix: Gavin Belson, the narcissistic CEO of Hooli, Monica Hall, an angel investor who never stops believing in Richard (and one of the rare women on the show), Jian-Yang, one of Erlich’s tenants who refuses to leave the house, and Laurie Bream, a droll, withholding head of a VC firm who becomes financially entangled with Pied Piper’s future.
For the first four seasons of Silicon Valley, the stakes of the each episode’s plot rose and then fell, and then rose again, in a gentle undulating rhythm that made it feel very much at times like a single-camera sitcom rather than a riskier prestige offering. Almost every episode of the show followed the exact same formula: Richard makes a bold stride forward with the company, but almost always stumbles due to personal foibles (stubbornness, anxiety, a weak stomach); Gilfoyle and Dinesh carry on some side plot in which they try to one-up each other until something in the house either breaks or catches on fire; Jared attempts to smooth over the situation, often revealing some hilarious detail about himself (“I know I have somewhat ghost-like features. My uncle used to say, ‘You look like someone starved a virgin to death.’”); Erlich makes things worse by trying to make them better; Gavin Belson pushes forward his evil plot to steal Pied Piper’s IP and put Richard (who used to work for Hooli and who Gavin hates for leaving) out of business; And then, magically, everything resolves.
Silicon Valley is funny not in spite of its consistent use of deus ex machina band-aids to patch up each plot, but because of them; the twists are often so bonkers that they make a bizarre kind of sense. The finale of season one hangs on a group conversation about fellatio that then leads to a technological breakthrough so extreme that it rockets Pied Piper into an entire new level of success. In the world of Silicon Valley, everything is about to fall apart, but is also one dick joke away from being redeemed.
After four seasons, this formula was starting to crisp at the edges. And while mocking many of the very problems endemic to Silicon Valley—a lack of women in high-ranking positions, a lack of diversity, a bubble of self-satisfaction—the show had begun to replicate them. Nothing ever went so wrong for the gang that they could not bounce back. These were men getting second, third, and twentieth chances.
Season five is different. T.J. Miller left the cast—and not quietly—and it feels as if the creative team used his departure as an opportunity for a major recalibration. As it turns out, Erlich was the cream sauce of the show, a gooey, heavy richness that while indulgent, had begun to curdle. His schtick had started to overshadow the potential for telling other stories about entrepreneurship; Erlich, as a character, made it his priority to suck the energy out of every room and re-focus it on himself. In sitcom terms, the writer’s room had created a monster.
When we meet Richard and company in the new season, Pied Piper has finally come into its own, and with a brand new mission: Richard has decided to invent a decentralized Internet, a peer-to-peer network that could potentially fulfill the web’s democratic potential. The company has a new office, a dozen new employees, and a much simpler challenge: to fulfill the task they set out to do. Some of the old shenanigans are there—Dinesh and Gilfoyle are still battling it out; after Dinesh splurges for a Tesla, Gilfoyle zooms in early to work each morning on a motorbike to steal the electric car parking spot—but there is a fresh energy to the writing, and it feels that the characters might at least begin to grapple with some of the dark corners of the Valley mentality.
In Erlich’s absence, Jian-Yang becomes a bigger presence. As he tries to take over 10 percent of Pied Piper, at least two characters are pressed on screen about their racial prejudices (this may be a meta-apologia from the writer’s room, given the fact that the show has received criticism in the past for its stereotypical depictions of Asian identity). Richard promotes Jared to his dream job, as COO, a kindness that allows both men to push into new narrative terrain, with Jared for instance trying set Richard up on friend dates. As it turns out, true camaraderie is as scarce in the Valley as unicorn startups are.
As the real Silicon Valley gets tangled in ever more difficulties, Silicon Valley finds itself in the rare position to roast an industry just as everyone is primed for laughter and anger toward it. And with a new nimbleness in a new season, the show feels capable, perhaps for the first time, of skewering its characters, rather than being saved by dick jokes.