For all its early promise, Mike Judge’s HBO comedy Silicon Valley has struggled to find its footing in any meaningful way. The past three seasons of the show have more or less featured the same arc, with the perpetually overwhelmed start-up Pied Piper shooting themselves in the foot every time they approach some form of success, forced to return to their underdog status quo and go back to the drawing board, desperately seeking some way to get rich without sacrificing what they believe are the best components of their product. Judge and his writing team seem incapable of allowing their characters to evolve or develop, so they just go through the same motions season after season, making the same mistakes and yet facing little in the way of consequences. This creative stagnation isn’t just concerning from a narrative quality standpoint though, it has also caused the show to morph from a satirical examination of the tech world to a frustrating enablement of white male mediocrity. And the season four premiere indicates that rather than learning from the misteps of last season, the show is going to double down on it.
Last night’s premiere picked up more or less right where last season left off. Richard (Thomas Middleditch) is a tech world pariah because of his admission that Pied Piper hired an Indian clickfarm to bulk up its user numbers and now he is forced to pretend to be an Uber driver so he can pick up venture capitalists who otherwise won’t meet with him, let alone sit through a “PiperChat” pitch. This is particularly frustrating to the gang because PiperChat is a bonafide success, with a very real user base that is growing at an incredible rate, which in turn means the company needs funding more than ever, just to keep up with server costs.
There is an interesting angle to be explored here, as the company heads towards a different future than they had expected. High quality video chat that works on cellphones isn’t as revolutionary as some of the other applications Richard hoped to see his algorithm used for, nonetheless it serves an actual need and fills an actual demand. It’s a parallel to the server farm subplot of last season, with the key difference being that Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) came up with it rather than an establishment stand-in outsider. Unfortunately, Richard responds to it in much the same way, like a petulant child who doesn’t want to face reality and would rather continuously explore ambitious, impractical pursuits.
To Silicon Valley’s credit, Richard’s stance isn’t necessarily glorified, and the premiere spends much of its runtime exploring the frustrations of the rest of Pied Piper, who move to kick Richard out of his own company before he brings further ruin down on their heads. Dinesh’s video chat coding is presented as an uncharacteristically smart, viable path for Pied Piper and Dinesh himself is given more room for evolution than his character has ever been granted before. The show also presents Richard’s immaturity in tandem with his rival Gavin Belson’s (Matt Ross), as Gavin fumes over perceived slights from ex-Pied Piper CEO Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky) when the two of them fly to China to secure a manufacturing deal for the “Endframe Box” and Barker asks their charter pilot to take a detour to drop him off with his family. Both Richard and Gavin are portrayed as childish leaders who won’t hesitate to bring their companies down to get their way.
The issue isn’t that the show is incapable of presenting its white male characters as immature, but that it never allows these characters to suffer any real consequences for their immaturity. In Richard and Gavin’s cases, the fuck-ups that result from their arrogance and obstinance are either short term or lead to them starting from scratch. Last season, Gavin notably bounced back from the brink of ruin, winning back control of his company Hooli after almost driving it into the ground with his egomaniacal feud with Pied Piper only to seemingly get right back on track to do the exact same thing this season. Richard refuses to ever focus and instead of working on this in order to save his and his partners’ careers, he throws a passive aggressive hissy fit about the current path Pied Piper is on and leaves to start something new, and this ultimately gets framed as a benevolent move, a “sacrifice” he makes for his collaborators.
Even supporting white male characters are given the same teflon coating in their narratives. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of “Big Head” (Josh Brener) and Erlich (TJ Miller), Pied Piper’s new owners. This duo’s arc in season three was centered around them blowing Big Head’s Hooli severance package fortune on a number of foolish investments and then saving the day by buying back Pied Piper at a pittance. Their arc in this season’s premiere initially focused on Erlich’s clashing with Big Head’s father over the divying up shares to Pied Piper’s staff. In no uncertain terms, Big Head’s father made it clear to Erlich that his only real goal was to make Erlich suffer as much as he suffered while watching Erlich fleece his son. Big Head’s father refuses to agree to have Big Head and Erlich equally split up shares to give to the Pied Piper staff and insists that Erlich do it from his own shares. Erlich balks at this and rejects it because it would eradicate any potential return on his investment and take him back to where he started, but to any reasonable person this would still be more than Erlich deserved for his behavior. And yet by the end of the episode, Richard’s departure has granted Erlich a kind of reprieve, since the 25% ownership of Pied Piper Richard had would be divvied up amongst the remaining staff and mostly save Erlich from losing his stake.
Whether the show intends it or not, these aspects of the narrative give problematic white men passes for their heinous actions. A more self-aware show would at least make Erlich suffer a little longer, or force him to work on improving his relationship with Big Head’s father in order to atone for how much he fucked over his son (who, it must be said, is himself the ultimate example of white male mediocrity succeeding in the show, and one of the most egregious examples of this trope in recent memory, albeit one where his mediocrity at least is the punchline). Instead, Erlich gets away with it and continues to do what he always does. Some critics argue that Erlich’s incredible ability to emerge from disaster unscathed is the joke, but how funny is that joke when it’s true of every single white male character on the show? At what point does it go from humor to lazy writing to a deeply troubling view of white privilege?
Contrast this with the repercussions Monica (Amanda Crew), the only significant and regularly appearing woman character on the show, faces. In this premiere, Monica is revealed to have been punished by her superiors, ostracized and exiled to an undesirable office. It turns out the office isn’t just undesirable because of how far away it is, but also because it’s all glass and across from the men’s restroom, forcing Monica to watch men urinate while she works. It’s not enough for Monica to be punished for standing up for what she believes in at work and defending Richard despite how selfishly he has behaved, she must also be subjected to a bizarre form of constant sexual harassment. The show tries to distance itself from the sexism of this joke by making Jack Barker go through the same thing, but even in that instance it’s odd how far out of its way this show will go to punish any character who shows competency; Jack’s only real crime appears to be doing his job well and expecting to get decent treatment for that.
And even outside of this, the fourth season premiere is full of jokes that illustrate a lack of care and awareness. For instance, Richard is “motivated” to stick to his guns and not settle for PiperChat as his future via an obscene, borderline homophobic monologue outside an elementary school from rogue VC Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantapoulos), centering on Hanneman’s assertion that Richard sticking to PiperChat is like dating a woman when “in your heart you know you’re gay” and want to “plow” dudes. Had this monologue come from an openly gay character, or if the show even featured a single queer character, maybe it would have come across differently, but given the show’s current make up, it just stands out as an example of the show’s unwillingness to confront the major issues with privilege in the real life Silicon Valley and the larger issues with straight white male mediocrity in our country on the whole.
Silicon Valley still has the potential to be a great show, but that won’t happen unless the show gets braver and acknowledges and comments on its own shortcomings and starts skewering white male mediocrity rather than perpetually indulging in it. We’ve had three seasons of white men behaving badly and facing no real repercussions for their actions, let alone indicating they’ve learned a goddamn thing. It’s long past time this show addressed that and made at least some of these characters develop.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover