Déjà vu: After four seasons, ‘Silicon Valley’ is stuck in a rut

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

“Silicon Valley” concluded its fourth season in a familiar place: after another run of successes and setbacks, the Pied Piper team has once again found themselves on an upward trajectory. Given the show’s narrative rhythm, that means it’s only a matter of time before it all comes crashing down — once again. But after four seasons, the show’s one-step-forward-two-steps-back schtick has worn thin.

Don’t get me wrong, “Silicon Valley” is still consistently funny. Showrunner Mike Judge and company have skewered the tech industry with a sharp satirical eye, laying bare the tech-bro sexism, cutthroat competitiveness and billionaire idiosyncrasies at work within.

That humor is elevated by one of the best ensemble casts on TV — second only to fellow HBO comedy “Veep,” with which it shares the 10 p.m. time slot. Props to Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, Zach Woods, T.J. Miller, Stephen Tobolowsky, Jimmy O. Yang and the rest of this game cast of comedic actors. Everybody on this show pulls their weight, bringing big laughs and great character moments.

Such moments usually come in several particular character pairings: Dinesh and Gilfoyle, Richard and Jared, Erlich and Jian-Yang. Each pair has a unique chemistry that keeps things entertaining, even as the show recycles the same story beats over and over.

This season sees the Pied Piper crew finding new ways to apply Richard’s revolutionary algorithm, after their deal with Google-analogue Hooli goes sideways. The solution is an ingenious peer-to-peer internet which will render data servers obsolete. It would be a game changer if it could make it to market; however, Richard’s tendency toward self-sabotage, as well as his company’s perpetual bad luck, makes it increasingly unlikely.

Richard’s character takes a turn this season, as his ambition and frustration with constant setbacks pushes him to make some unethical — bordering on illegal — decisions. Breaking bad is a not a good look for a character who started out as the meek genius who wanted to change the world without playing the tech-bro game, but Middleditch does a good job selling Richard’s a-hole turn, unsatisfying as it may be.

Despite the new details this season, it feels like we’ve been here before. The series has fallen into a repetitive story cycle, where every time Richard is about to succeed he falls short, either by his own actions or by external factors. In fact, it’s a pattern that played several times over this season alone.

While I understand the show is attempting to demonstrate how difficult it is to succeed in the fickle, cutthroat tech world, the lack of forward narrative momentum has become frustrating. Also frustrating is when external factors influence the story in unexpected and improbable ways. For example, the big win that saves Pied Piper in the season finale comes essentially by accident — although it is a funny callback to a gag from an earlier episode.

Heading into season five, it’s hard to imagine Judge and company won’t shake things up. At the very least, they will have to adjust to the departure of Miller. Miller’s Erlich character was a fan-favorite and a source of some of the show’s biggest laughs. His absence will be felt, but perhaps such a loss will compel the show to embrace additional changes and overcome the narrative inertia that has been plaguing the show.

CHECK IT OUT

All seasons of “Silicon Valley” are now streaming on HBO NOW and HBO GO.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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