In its fourth season, Silicon Valley is facing the same problem many an established tech brand comes up against after a few years on the market: how to stay relevant? After charting the travails of Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his Pied Piper company through various booms and busts, the HBO sitcom could have started to get stale, relying on the same mix of broad tech satire and foul-mouthed monologuing that’s carried it until now. But Silicon Valley thrives on self-awareness, and there’s no better evidence than the opening of this season, which comes to a simple conclusion: All of Richard’s progress up until now should be liquidated.
This is a “soft reboot” season, one that largely abandons the minutiae of Pied Piper to embark on new adventures, shake up some of the show’s typical alliances, and generally expand each character’s motivation beyond trying to get venture capital and become a billionaire. This shift feels both necessary and satisfying, even if you’ve so far been invested in the success of Richard’s inventions (mainly, a piece of compression code that allows for the near instantaneous sharing of big files). Silicon Valley remains one of the funniest, darkest, smartest shows about the attraction, and limitations, of the American Dream, but by resetting itself, it also manages to stay strangely gripping.
Part of the weird appeal of Silicon Valley comes from how it plays almost like an action thriller at times and a cut-throat boardroom drama at others. In the new season, Richard’s Pied Piper has mostly collapsed after an internal battle with its puffed-up CEO Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky) and the failure of its main product, a Dropbox-like service that proved too confusing and tech-minded for regular users. The company is now in the hands of Richard’s stoned mogul buddy Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), and is surviving only because of the surprise success of one of its peripheral features, a video-chat service.
As we begin Season 4, there’s actually hope for the video-chat to take off, in a conventional sense—Richard and his fellow programmers Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) could raise some venture capital, restructure the business, and try scaling up their popular product. But the show’s creators Mike Judge, John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky know that’s no fun; Silicon Valley has spent long enough satirizing the endless cycle of pitch meetings and legal battles that come with chairing an emerging software company. So the wheels come off the remnants of Pied Piper very quickly—and in imaginative ways.
The point of Silicon Valley, too, has long been that its main character defies many industry stereotypes. Richard doesn’t crave power, except when it grants him the independence to pursue his projects. He’s completely incompetent at running a tech company: He is bad at delegating responsibility, has a horrible sense for marketing, and lacks the desire to discipline or exert control over his employees. He’s a socially awkward nerd, yes, like many programmers in Northern California, but the failure of Pied Piper in the third season dealt a final blow to whatever notion Richard had that money and success equaled happiness in the tech business.
Indeed, Richard is beginning to take on some qualities of the eccentric tech legends of his industry; at one point in the season, he walks into the room fully clothed, with his bottom half soaking wet—because he wandered into the pool in a fit of inspiration, he tries to explain (Dinesh and Gilfoyle look on with the same nonplussed stares they usually give him). Richard has long been my biggest problem with the show, not because of Middleditch’s performance (he’s so perfectly awkward, it can be painful to watch him have a simple conversation) but because he’s such a charisma vacuum at the center of the show, and one so prone to making bad decisions.
This season is finally addressing that by making Richard almost dangerously odd, rather than a regular old introvert. When challenged by the idiotic venture capitalist Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopoulos, making a triumphant return) to explain his actual passion project, Richard speaks of building “a new internet,” one using his algorithm to provide super-fast service at no cost, free of government interference or spy technology. It’s both demented and wonderful, the perfect kind of shoot-the-moon idea for the show to hang its hat on, and one broad enough that it can intersect with every colorful character in Silicon Valley’s ever-growing ensemble.
There are plenty of other side-plots to revel in from the three episodes provided to critics. The continuing petty adventures of Hooli CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross, a stand-in for every fatuous celebrity tech exec you can think of) see him butting heads with Jack Barker this year, primarily over the specific flight patterns of his private jet. The soft-spoken accountant Jared (Zach Woods) gets plenty of chances to shine as he is separated from Richard’s side, as does Dinesh (Nanjiani, primed to become Hollywood’s next comedy leading man), who’s given a brief run in a leadership role. The most delightful thing about Silicon Valley after four years is its continued inventiveness—and finally, through Richard, it’s found an entirely new project to captivate fans this season.