Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: On Silicon Valley, the show’s main character, Richard Hendriks (Thomas Middleditch) is actually facing some small degree of success. But he panics in the face of it, then runs headlong into an awkward confrontation with his peers at tech start-up Pied Piper, before drastically changing gears.
That’s exactly the quandary that Hendriks finds himself in at the beginning of Silicon Valley‘s new season, which premiered on Sunday. The last season ended with Richard’s flailing company getting back on track by “pivoting” to a new idea: video chat, a side project invented by Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) that his coworkers mocked until it inadvertently became a success.
But this is Silicon Valley, which means good news never lasts for long. The fourth season begins with Pied Piper’s video chat service running into trouble while still growing fast. Everyone else thinks this service is the company’s best bet. But Richard can’t focus on it. His “improvement” to the product, to his colleagues, looks worse than trivial. This leads to a personal confrontation with Dinesh.
Goaded by once-billionaire funder Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopolous), who unleashes an amusing stream of dirty talk next to his child’s school, Richard decides to take the ultimate “pivot.” Unable to convince his comrades to come along for an increasingly crazy-sounding ride, the Pied Piper team negotiates a split.
The new season’s first episode presses a kind of “reset” button, and it’s much too early to know where the next nine episodes will take us. There’s reason to be hopeful, thanks to some genuinely funny sequences. Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) and Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky) have a showdown over air travel that only the super-rich and super-clueless could have. As Dinesh’s role rises in the company, Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) wryly remarks that he’s happy to have a front-row seat to what he’s sure will be a complete meltdown.
“Plus, if I’m wrong, which I’m not, I get rich,” says Gilfoyle.
But the more things change, the more they feel like Silicon Valley of old. The fourth season’s opening, after all, is very thematically similar to the third. Once again, Richard is at a career crossroads that threatens to take him away from the Pied Piper team. The team’s reactions are still funny, but more, well, predictable. Jared is timid and terrified that he’ll be torn away from Richard, again. Bachmann wants to turn change into an opportunity to cash in personally, again. And of course, Gavin Belson seeks to triumph in business by indulging personal vendettas and ignoring the basic human needs of those in his employ.
All of that feels like a repeat of the third season’s opener. Last year, Belson told his company that “failure is growth.” This year, he “promotes” Jack Barker by sending him to work among the zombies in Hooli’s dungeon-like server farm.
It’s all still funny, for now. But how many times can Silicon Valley pull off this trick? The writers are in danger of falling into exactly the comedic trap that writer Alec Berg foresaw. The Pied Piper gang are “the Bad News Bears,” the underdogs, constantly trying to “score a win,” Berg told an audience at SXSW last year. Watching Richard squirm and react while Russ Hanneman launches into a Lamborghini-powered tirade of assholery is funny. If Richard were to actually become a success, what are we going to do? Watch him shop for his own Lambo? Would that be as funny?
The first episode lays a satisfying enough “do-over” for the show’s characters. So, will Silicon Valley spend the next few months repeating an old formula—or will the writers want to, you know, say something? Richard Hendricks is pondering a “new Internet,” and his blank whiteboard is calling out for big ideas. We’ll soon find out if the show can deliver.