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Sisyphus in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is back for another round on tech’s wheel of fortune, and everything’s changed: Dinesh is CEO!

Just kidding. Nothing has changed. Everything is the same, and I mean that in the best possible way.

What the first two episodes of season four demonstrates is that the frantic reshufflings that have propelled the HBO series average out into a flat line. Dinesh’s spectacular rise and fall as CEO took a little over one episode to begin and end. Now everyone’s back to zero. If it wasn’t crystal clear before, it’s obvious now that this show — amusingly laden as it is with grandiose fantasies of genius and merit and Making It — is dedicated not to empire-building but to the comical drudgery of rote repetition. For a show about failure, that’s a winning formula.

I’ll be frank: My hopes for Silicon Valley‘s new season were slim. The gentle semi-satire of America’s tech hub (a parody that sometimes slips into true belief) has had three charming seasons, but it seemed to have run out of story. In three years, the comedy burned through every possible permutation of failure and success. Richard et al have built companies and lost companies. Brief stints as CEOs have given way to disorienting ousters, boards have been created and dissolved, millions of dollars have been acquired and spent in terms so abstract they barely existed, and Bighead, the show’s Chauncey Gardiner, just keeps failing upwards. It seemed, during the first three seasons, that the show had an arc in mind; this would be a new Steve Jobs story in which a group of misfits made magic in a garage that would spiral up into a cautionary tangle of fame and fortune.

But after three cycles of failures and resets, that arc seems unlikely. As Silicon Valley settles into its fourth season, it’s clear that this show understands its humor too well to progress. Instead of honoring the hero’s journey, it’s the story of Sisyphus, the guy who pushed that rock all the way up a mountain only to have it come rolling to the bottom again.

That’s for the best. Silicon Valley is funniest when the team is huddling in Erlich’s grandly named “incubator.” It’s frustrating, as a matter of structure, that the show keeps resetting to zero. Seen as a videogame instead of a biopic, though, this makes sense. Thomas Middleditch’s Richard is most compellingly birdlike when he’s a frustrated genius (and a total ass, as this season has taken pains to demonstrate). The guys are at their best when they’re totally unimpressed by him.

What season four really demonstrates is that in Silicon Valley, the comedy is inversely proportional to the company. The dynamics that make this show funny — Erlich’s bluster, Jian’s contempt, Richard’s prototypical anxiety, Jared’s fervent belief in his latest boss — sparkle when the actual ship is sinking. The show loses something essential when things are going well. It got stretched thin when the team was spread out in too many places. The Bachmanity subplot diluted the show in ways that made me sad, and Erlich is wonderful as a fantasist but truly intolerable whenever he gets anything like real power.

But two episodes in and season four is already hitting that sweet spot. Dinesh’s videochat app — which he developed in order to better ogle women — turns out to be the best implementation yet of Richard’s algorithm. This is a venture with real financial potential, but it’s the opposite of revolutionary. Richard, who can’t stand the smallness of its ambition, compensates at first by going even smaller: He makes the video quality 10 percent better. It’s an improvement no one cares about, and an index of Richard’s inability to think about what human beings actually want. He leaves the company to start working on a cause he believes is worthy of his gifts: a better version of the internet.

One of the finest moments of season four comes when the guys try to vote for a new CEO for Piperchat. No one is right for the job, but Dinesh gets voted in since he developed the thing. The results are awesomely terrible — a case study in hubris and the way Silicon Valley origin stories get manufactured.

The other lesson of this wonderfully silly show is that every time someone on this show starts to Make It, they become monstrous. It’s a treat to watch Dinesh (played by the excellent Kumail Nanjiani) start believing in his own hype, which lasts less than an episode before devolving into disaster.

I’m a little sorry that Hooli continues to be a player — I really only liked Gavin as a foil to the late lamented Peter Gregory — but it’s delightful to find that season four has started to find better uses for Jian, whose subplot is one of my favorites in the entire series run. And while the first few episodes haven’t done much with Monica, I’m confident the series will find a way to pull her back in. Monica’s scene with pregnant Laurie was gold; Suzanne Cryer takes this show to a whole new level every time she’s onscreen as Laurie Bream. If there must be more Gavin, I hope it’s Laurie who ultimately takes him down (again).

Silicon Valley might be spotty as tech satire, but it really is great comedy. Here’s hoping it keeps playing, losing, and clicking “Restart” every time.

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