The Slow Death of Silicon Valley
Soon enough, I fear I may no longer be a Daily Active User.
When Silicon Valley first came on the air, it was hardly even a satire. The show was just a sitcom set among programmers, like a raunchy, higher-caliber IT Crowd. The valley’s corporate culture was a mere backdrop at which one could take chuckle-worthy cheap shots: Larry Ellison is a megalomaniac, Peter Thiel is a weirdo (wonder how that would’ve been handled after his RNC speech), and the “we’re saving the world” bullshit is laughable on its face. Still, Gavin excepted, they all seemed to mean well enough in the eyes of the show. In fact, it got downright reverent of Thiel’s stand-in Peter Gregory: the scene where he manipulates the sesame seed markets is a prime slice of Great-Man-inflected financier worship.
But then the world lost Christopher Evan Welch, and the show lost the rivalry between the two CEOs that was meant to be the overarching conflict from the jump. They weren’t going to recast his character, and they couldn’t write another one whose personal history with Gavin Belson just-so-happened to go back to the 70’s. Richard & Co. were deprived of their unreliable ally, and the show had to evolve from a Greek tragedy of rich men’s competing whims into more of a David & Goliath struggle between the orphaned Pied Piper and the unstoppable Hooli.
However, this worked out for a show set in a industry run by Goliaths, backed by hordes of lawyers for whom killing David is a legal specialization. Mike Judge clearly came into the first season wanting to believe at least some of the hype about the tech world, but his small army of tech-insider consultants convinced him otherwise: the Valley is a glorified feeding frenzy of lawyers and VC’s that produces shockingly few actual ideas, and those who do have ideas are usually devoured by that remorseless frenzy. The writers got an assist from over 200 industry veterans who shared decades of war stories, painting a bleak picture of the industry as a total moral vacuum. Silicon Valley isn’t a magical place where dreams come true, it’s just Wall Street without the ties.
And thus, in the second season, Mike Judge made the satire he was born to make — he is to giant, soulless entities what Matt Groening is to mob rule. After decades championing the common man against MTV programmers, the bureaucrats of Arlen, the Austin software industry, and The United States of Uhmerica (and to a lesser extent the McCormick Spice co.), in the Valley, Mike finally had his perfect foil.
The result was nothing less than a ten-episode indictment. They went hard out of the gate, but I didn’t realize until the scene where Gavin Belson compared billionaires to Polish Jews (which real billionaires did on three separate occasions!) that they had recalibrated the show in a fundamental way. The affectionate portrait of the Valley was gone, and they weren’t holding anything back. This show was aimed at the jugular of every business-casual empty suit who tells themselves that they’re disrupting the world into utopia, and it aimed to cut deep. Mike Judge rejected all the valley’s works, and all of their innovatively empty promises, and laid out a jeremiad against their dirty tricks and depredations: the brain-rape meeting, the baseless lawsuit, all the ways in which everyone on the show is trying to use everyone else, and of course, the meteoric rise of Big Head’s mediocrity in a an alleged meritocracy.
When the last frames rolled on Two Days of the Condor, I was in ecstasy. I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that I had just witnessed true greatness. I am not trying to overstate my case here: no show since The Wire has had as much of an effect on my worldview as this one, because they both present major challenges to modern society realistically, but in a dramatically satisfying package. Just as Hamsterdam convinced me of the absolute moral necessity of drug legalization, SV made me a firm believer that the antitrust division of the DOJ needs to come down on these rapacious pricks like the wrath of God, all while making me laugh my ass off. I couldn’t wait for more.
I quite enjoyed the first third of the following season, when they were moving into the new offices and Pied Piper had a sense of profoundly flawed progress. The CGI-heavy scene where they get lost in Malleant’s gigantic server farm had me hopeful that we were finally going to see the gang being their awful selves at an elite level of the industry… but then they got rid of Action Jack Barker, the new offices, and all of their funding, and I found myself back at Erlich’s, watching Richard tussle with his one-off B-plot of a girlfriend about coding formats. I knew from that episode that they were going back to the original iteration of the show in all the worst ways, and I came across a lot of fellow viewers who gave up on the show halfway through S3 for that reason — to be fair to the show, I always told these people it was worth powering through the slump, because the season did close strong.
In the second season, the lawsuit plotline was a compelling reason for the cast to return to Erlich’s living room (the first time), but with each successive reset, the main set has become the drain that this show is circling. At the risk of repeating a trite criticism that is only trite because it’s a glaringly huge problem with the show: Breaking Bad got rid of the RV Lab once Walt met Gus Fring, yet we’re four seasons into this show and we’re still in a goddamn ranch house in Palo Alto. They’re still sitting on revolutionary technology and broke at the same time, after partnering with three different billionaires. The fact that the writers always find some narrative justification to go back to it notwithstanding, I’m so fucking sick of that living room set I could scream, even if the visual gag of the fire damage will never, ever get old (because it happened in Two Days of the Condor).
A show that managed to make plots about Venture Capital into absolutely thrilling television has totally abandoned its ambition, and the diminishing returns are palpable. Every time Dinesh and Gilfoyle show up onscreen, I know that I’m seeing a gimmicky, aimless C-plot which will have some very limited bearing on the A-plot around 20 minutes in. The stasis of the show is allowing Zach Woods to do very little with his character except reveal ever-more-disturbing details of his childhood, which are feeling forced for the first time this season. Richard is doing the same shit over and over and getting less likable each time, which makes his dickish self-obsession harder to balance in terms of audience engagement. And Jian-Yang… no, he still kills me every time, actually.
Why are they doing this? Most shows that get hammered for a narrative misstep tend to quietly correct it next season (hence there being like 12 seconds of Dorne in Game of Thrones S6). Everyone I’ve talked to about it said the regression from the new Pied Piper offices back to the living room was shaking their faith in the show; yet here we are, back again, even though they spent half the season working for an entity set up with a billionaire’s personal funds. It’s like the creators responded to the criticism by doubling down on alienating their audience, and as interested as I’d be to see a tech industry satire from David Lynch, that’s not the show I’m trying to watch here.
How interesting would it be to see Richard turn heel, genuinely corrupted by power and status, or for Jared to wrestle with his worshipful image of Richard when he makes a decision that harms some of the company’s many (more than five) employees? Or for Gilfoyle to stop wasting Martin Starr’s range and actually have to make choices between his persona and his job, once he becomes the CTO of a real tech firm? We can’t say, because the show won’t sack up and take some risks.
Even worse, they keep teasing us with possible new directions and walking them back. The S3 finale had us thinking Monica Crew was gonna work for Pied Piper this season, and she’s back to being mostly wasted at Raviga’s offices. We got a delightful taste of Kumail Nanjiani as a CEO that had me hopeful for a new arc, and it lasted one episode before the inevitable regression to the mean. As clever as the COPPA violations bringing down Gavin Belson was, PiperChat couldn’t be allowed to exist as a successful entity for more than two goddamn episodes?
Erlich “Eric” Bachmann is one of my favorite characters on TV, bar none, but I’m actually glad TJ Miller is leaving. I think the whole reason they keep going back to his living room is that it’s the only way to keep him remotely relevant to the plot (and making meta jokes about his irrelevance isn’t the same as doing something about it). I’m still fearful of the prospect that the season will end with the sale of the incubator to the gang, and the living-room-based rot eating at this show will survive him, but I have some faith that the creative team will feel enough heat over two seasons of treading water that they change it up. At least, I hope they will.
If they do, I look forward to the results. If not, take the first half of this as an elegy for a crowning achievement in broadcasting, and let me know how the rest of the show goes — I doubt I’ll be watching.