When Silicon Valley came back this season, viewers may not have known what to expect, but they certainly knew what not to expect. T.J. Miller’s much-ballyhooed exit meant that the show would be without its most dependable (if incompetent) trickster. Since the HBO show’s inception, Erlich Bachman had been the perfect agent of chaos: shortsighted, greedy, and insecure enough to constantly undercut the Pied Piper gang without being an actual antagonist. Couple his departure that with the show’s increasingly how are they gonna get out of this—oh, they just did narrative curlicues, and even fans would have been forgiven for assuming the worst for Season 5.
Is that how the newest batch turned out? It’s a complicated question. The season, which wrapped up last night, felt as ripped-from-the-headlines as other years—this time cryptocurrency flameouts, Tesla, and Sophia the robot got the parody treatment—but it also added some new variables to the mix. An all-new set of Pied Piper coworkers made for some Office – like merger woes, new struggles with VC firm Bream/Hall endangered Richard’s (Thomas Middleditch) “new internet” in unexpected ways, and Jian Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) …well, that’s probably something we need to talk about. In fact, we put together a trial-size version of the Octopipers—WIRED staffers Peter Rubin and Angela Watercutter—to do just that.
Peter Rubin, Senior Editor:Well, previous season finales have left Pied Piper in various stages, but Unmitigated Success has never been one of them. It feels a little weird, right? Other than that, it felt like vintage Silicon Valley—by which I mean a lot of racing around in Ludicrous Mode just to end up back where we started. (Except Richard’s assistant, Holden, whom Jared has finally reprogrammed to be so apoplectically enthusiastic he feels like the walked out of the opening scene of The Wolf of Wall Street.)
In case you weren’t taking notes, here’s how things wound up: Jian Yang is moving back from China to take Erlich’s old room in the house. (U-Turn #1) Thanks to Richard’s insane piss-kissing triple-cross of Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), Pied Piper—after flatlining, then gaining users—was able to re-recruit an alienated K-Hole Colin, stave off Yao’s 51 percent attack, and ruin Belson at the same time. (U-Turns #2, 3, and 4) Oh, and everyone grew beards and shaved them off. (U-Turn #5) If it weren’t for Big Head’s balletic Double-Gulp refill, I’m not sure anything would have wound up different from how it started.
So I guess my real question is: how much more depth does the show have left to plumb? Pied Piper is about to move into a huge new office, hire hundreds of people, and grapple with everything from HR issues (most probably Dinesh’s, tbh) to NSA backdoors. Based on how this season has gone, Angela, do you have an appetite for more?
Angela Watercutter, Senior Associate Editor: Eh, not really. But that’s been true since, like, Season 2. I feel like most of the comedy (and drama) on this show is derived from seeing who can be the bigger dick, and—even if that is how the real Silicon Valley works—that schtick got old for me a long time ago. Having Erlich gone changed the flavors of jerk that were on offer, but the setups and punchlines were still pretty much the same. And yes, the how-will-they-get-out-of-this-jam flip-flops mostly just feel like flops now. Everyone knows they’re going to fail up.
That said, there were a couple things I enjoyed about this season. Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) having a mild obsession with Elon Musk’s Spaceballs-themed Tesla speed optionswas amusing. I liked that they gave Monica (Amanda Crew) some more depth and dimension. Seeing that the unfortunately named Sliceline was basically painting itself into a MoviePass-esque corner by taking a loss on each pizza it sold while it built its user base was amusing. And … actually, I can’t think of anything else right now.
Rubin: Yeah, for me the best stuff was evenly split between the slyer parody stuff—Sliceline and Eklow Labs in particular—and some continued growth among the core cast, especially Monica and Gilfoyle, who has progressed beyond the “Hail Satan” punch lines. However, I’m beginning to wonder if the Silicon Valley in Silicon Valley is beginning to lose people. The show, like so many other HBO standouts, has always benefited from immersing people in a world without holding their hands every step of the way: Season 1 of The Wire, for example, was trial-by-fire until viewers caught up to the twin argots of cops and dealers. But judging from the slipping audience numbers, it doesn’t seem like people are coming along for the ride.
Some of that could be the same attrition that’s plaguing cable shows in general, but in an age when HBO has younger shows with bigger crowds—Ballers and Big Little Lies come to mind—I can’t help thinking how much longer we’ll be caught in the PiperNet.
That being said, the show has addressed some of the issues that fans and detractors alike have been pointing out. Well, not Jian Yang, whose increased prominence didn’t change his flatness, and thus became even cringier. But Pied Piper’s growth has brought a ton more women around, such that the office bullpen feels almost evenly split, and Suzanne Cryer as Laurie Bream continues to deliver one of the funniest performances in the whole ensemble. (For old fans of Two Guys and a Girl, Ryan Reynolds isn’t the only alumni to make good!) So even if at a macro scale the writing feels like a frustrating loop-the-loop, I’m still here for the performances. Having filmed one of my favorite WIRED videos of all time with the cast a few seasons ago, I can attest to Thomas Middleditch and Zach Woods’ incredible improv skills—and the fact is I’ll watch those guys do just about anything.
So what about you? Do you think there’s too much or too little Silicon Valley in Silicon Valley?
Watercutter: I think there’s probably just the right amount of Silicon Valley in Silicon Valley—and that might be the problem. When it comes to gender parity and some of the other things you mention, the show has definitely gotten better. And you’re right: The performances are pretty spot-on. But I think the show might be losing viewers because the way people perceive “Silicon Valley” is different these days. It’s no longer this idea of coders in hoodies playing ping-pong and having beer busts. Now people hear “Silicon Valley” and think about the 2016 election and getting harassed on Twitter or whatever, and—frankly—it’s a little hard to laugh about that. It’s tough, for me at least, to watch it now and not just think, “Man, is this what Silicon Valley was doing while things were falling apart, having petty backstabbing fights and worrying about who had the fastest Tesla?”
And, frankly, that puts Silicon Valley in a tough position. The only way to not leave that taste in the audience’s mouth is to address some of these things head-on, but if they do that, well, it’s no longer a comedy show—it’s an Aaron Sorkinseries. Ultimately, I think that’s what took the air out of it. Even when the jokes are good, the laughs are rueful. At the end of last night’s episode, Monica and the Pied Piper guys walk into their new, massively cavernous office. It was yet another success-by-the-skin-of-their-teeth finale for Silicon Valley. But as they walked in, and Richard puked in nervous excitement, the lingering thought I had was that the founders of Facebook probably had a moment like that once—and look where it got them. And us.