“What we’re doing here is amazing,” Thomas Middleditch’s Richard tells a group of coders in the superbly dark new season of Silicon Valley. “We are building the world’s first truly open, truly free, decentralized Internet!” Still a few bugs in the system, though. Mike Judge’s HBO comedy has taken a leap this season, as the Pied Piper crew takes a hard look into the dark web. Satirizing tech-bro start-up culture feels really different than it did a year ago, before Mark Zuckerberg got called in to sweat his way through a Senate enquiry about stealing Facebook users’ personal data, before the world found out about Cambridge Analytica’s digital fingerprints on the 2016 election. The show couldn’t have planned ahead for these headlines. (Or … could it?) But now it’s a nastier, more paranoid show – and all the funnier for it.
Silicon Valley has become a prescient satire about a world where smart-fridges are listening in on customers’ private lives and streaming their data to the cloud. It’s a comedy where the tech guys have to keep remembering to hide from their own phones, lest they get spied on via “emotional recognition protocol.” Martin Starr’s Gilfoyle used to be a fairly simple comic character; suddenly, he’s turned into the heart of the series, both the resident surly asshole and the bitterly prickly sage who understands the apocalyptic business they’re in. As Gilfoyle frets at one point this season, “A.I. is starting to operate on levels we don’t even understand. Elon Musk himself gives humanity a 5% shot at surviving A.I. and he is a Walt Disney-level optimist.”
How did this software upgrade happen? Give T.J. Miller credit for radically improving the show by pressing the auto-destruct button on his career. Last year, the actor quit amid a host of bizarre rants, forcing the writers to find a way to kiss off his character Erlich. This was supposed to be the season the Pied Piper foursome – Middleditch’s Richard, Starr’s Gilfoyle, Kumail Nanjiani’s Dinesh and Zach Woods’ Jared – moved on while still making the incubator owner/muttonchopped venture capitalist the butt of their jokes. Erlich’s nemesis Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) has gotten them thrown out of their house, via his app Hacker Hostel. They try to expand Pied Piper with partners like K-Hole Games, who make that hot video game Undead Sex Offender.
T.J. Miller, enjoyable as he was, isn’t missed at all. His increasingly cartoonish asshattery came to make him seem vestigial and out of place – the token lazy sod in a comedy about work addiction. Of course, in terms of whatta-douchebag subtext, he remains the gift that keeps on giving, the magic bag that never runs out of douche. Last week he made headlines when he got arrested for calling in a fake bomb threat on an Amtrak train. (Great – this guy might end up single-handedly ruining train travel in America. What a dick.)
But with Erlich gone, Gilfoyle has finally come into his own, as the only guy who’s a big enough misanthrope to appreciate what they’re doing. He’s hacked into Seppen Appliances, makers of the smart-fridge. When Gavin Belson (Matt Ross, who’s also killing it this season) tips off the offended party about who did it, the company sues Pied Piper. As Jared says, “Their complaint specifically cites ‘sullying their smart-fridges with mime-simulated fellatio.'” Seppen is horrified by this hack: “Our customers invite us into their homes. The kitchen is the modern hearth. We cannot have that trust violated.” But the hacking prank just exposed the level of data theft that’s going on – the smart fridge spies on any customer raiding the ice-box for a late-night leftover. As Martin Starr sneers, “You thought a mime performing fellatio was bad? What happens when your customers find out that every single thing they’ve ever said in front of their hearth has been recorded?”
I really do love how Martin Starr has become the conscience of the show, by turning into the stereotypical kind of paranoid Gen X jerk who can’t shut up about HAL 9000 when people talk to Alexa or Siri. “They’ve been listening to us all this time,” he fumes. “All these devices are listening to us.” In one excellent scene this season, he turns into a parody of The X-Files‘ Lone Gunmen, ranting on the floor of his pad, cigarettes and coffee strewn all around. (All that’s missing is the Meat Puppets t-shirt.) He’s got that mean gleam in his eye, whether he’s brooding about the prospect of our A.I. robot overlords or bashing social media. He’s become the voice for the darkness behind the brave-new-world tech fantasies: the idea that the corporate cloud is data-fracking the private conversations we have in front of our TVs, toaster ovens, bread machines or smoke detectors.
Silicon Valley always seemed idealistic at heart – these lovable underdogs chasing their Pied Piper start-up dream. But it’s taken a toll on them. Richard has gotten twitchier and sweatier, no longer able to control his temper. Dinesh is in a grim place this season, even when he’s karaokeing “Don’t You Want Me.” Even Jared, the voice of calm emotional reason, admits, “The Internet as we know it is rife with identity theft and spam and hacking.” These guys sincerely hope the brave new World Wide Web they’re building will be a better place than the old one – but they’ve got the fear and you can see it. It was a more innocent time when this show began a few years ago; now, the comedy has inevitably gotten closer to Black Mirror. Nothing can ease these guys’ anxiety – not even mime fellatio.
Gilfoyle is still a total tool – he sets up his computer to blast a Napalm Death song through the office whenever the price of Bitcoin drops below a certain level. But he’s gone from an arrested-adolescent jerk to a prematurely middle-aged jerk, behind that crazier-than-ever beard. It’s a logical step from Starr’s Freaks and Geeks incarnation as the shy young Garry Shandling fan to his Party Down adulthood as the “hard sci-fi” guy who lectures porn stars about the difference between fantasy and science fiction. He’s always had that nasty edge here, from the beginning when he used to deadpan-bark things like “I’ve got a story – why don’t you choke on my balls?” Now, finally, the rest of the show has caught up with him. Silicon Valley is asking a very timely question: In the not-so-distant future, will we all be Gilfoyles?