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Tech satire ‘Silicon Valley’ powers down in style

  • With its final season, ‘Silicon Valley’ takes aim at the concept of the greater good
  • This has consistently been one of the funniest shows on television, with wickedly sharp lines

Thomas Middleditch plays Pied Piper CEO Richard Hendricks in ‘Silicon Valley’
Thomas Middleditch plays Pied Piper CEO Richard Hendricks in ‘Silicon Valley’

So you won’t take down lies?" On 23 October, lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in front of the US House of Representatives about irresponsible and false political advertising. Zuckerberg, 35, squirmed and stammered, unable to respond with any manner of coherence. On 27 October, the final season of HBO sitcom Silicon Valley started with Richard Hendricks, founder and CEO of the fictitious tech company Pied Piper, in Washington, DC for a senate hearing. Dry-mouthed and sweating, Hendricks was fantastically inept—but his comedic befuddlement couldn’t match Zuckerberg’s gormlessness.

This prescience is no surprise. Created by Mike Judge and Alec Berg, Silicon Valley (streaming in India on Hotstar Premium) has always got its tech bearings right, earning fans as high up the nerd chain as Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The satire revolves around a tech startup that keeps failing and succeeding, only to fail again, in unbelievable—yet ultimately plausible—ways. This final season, which bowed out on 8 December, revolved around truth being scarier than fiction.

Consider, if you will, the show’s primary villain, Gavin Belson. Played by Matt Ross from a composite of the worst CEO horror stories, Belson is an unscrupulous blowhard who once compared the persecution of billionaires to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany. Yet with his company being swallowed by Amazon, Belson doesn’t feel like the villain. Fighting against Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, even this fool—fuelled by ego and spite—appears somehow valiant. “What is Amazon anyway?" Belson asks. “Is it a river? Is it a giant woman? It’s not clear."

Clearly, the world has changed. The tech companies we rely on are ripping us apart, and, with its final season, Silicon Valley takes aim at the concept of the greater good. Pied Piper has finally become a legitimately big organization with something amazing on offer—a decentralized internet that gives power to users, not corporations—but Hendricks isn’t sure. “Hiroshima was an elegant implementation," he argues awkwardly to explain that just because things work doesn’t mean they are good. The cautionary tale is clear. Their worst-case scenario is that they become Facebook.

At its heart, this is a show about friends wanting to do something cool together. Hendricks, the clueless innovator; Gilfoyle, the deadpan Satanist genius; Dinesh, the programmer who really wants to get rich; and “Jared", the cheerleader and moral compass who loves these guys so much he will let them call him Jared even though his name is Donald. This deviously plotted show has put the startup through a lot—betrayal, lawsuits, murderous girlfriends, idiot investors—and surrounded those who work there with people who want to eat them alive. Finally, they are on the verge of making it. Or at least that’s what their Artificial Intelligence is telling them.

I recently read a superb New Yorker story about the near-impossibility of training Artificial Intelligence to write like a human being—except that the piece happens to be co-authored by Artificial Intelligence, with machines “reading" the writer John Seabrook and imitating the content and his style. In a dastardly move that made me quake, the machine wrote the last line of the piece.

We know Pied Piper doesn’t want to do anything sinister. These guys, for all their bickering and bragging and occasional slides into the dark side, are anything but malevolent. An ever-biased Jared calls the others “the three musketeers, except all of you are d’Artagnan", and while our heroes may not be swashbuckling, they mean well. Mostly. Their machines, however, may have other ideas. For now, that’s all my MacBook will let me tell you.

Another Silicon Valley theme is that of failing upwards—so each defeat only strengthens one’s position. Asinine billionaire Russ Hanneman, obsessed with commas and cars with scissor-doors, should have squandered his fortune five seasons ago. Yet he returns, bigger and brasher, eager to sing Puddle Of Mudd songs in boardrooms. The cartoonishly inept Nelson “Big Head" Bighetti forever finds himself in positions of power and influence. Success, we are repeatedly shown, does not belong only to the meritorious. Is it, then, as worthy a goal?

What is worthy are the jokes along the way. This has consistently been one of the funniest shows on television, with wickedly sharp lines, and profanity that actually shaped the plot. TV has turned cruel cursing into an art form (Veep, Succession) but only in Silicon Valley can a dirty joke inspire a climactic plot point and give the whole narrative new direction. We saw that bawdy brilliance at the end of season 1, and the lines have stayed savage. Gilfoyle says Dinesh’s issue “may be insecurity, masked by false bravado and unisex cologne". Gavin Belson, describing how busy he is, says, “I saw a yeti one time, and forgot for a couple of years."

The cast is phenomenal. Thomas Middleditch is a Richard so awkward you can believe he’s actually shrinking due to stress, Kumail Nanjiani is perfect as the wannabe Dinesh, who needs to own the fastest car in office, Martin Starr slays every single line as the smug and mostly all-knowing Gilfoyle, and Zach Woods turns Jared into the show’s true leading man, with his horrifying backstories and perennial optimism. T.J. Miller, Amanda Crew, Matt Ross, Suzanne Cryer, Chris Diamantopoulos and the late Christopher Evan Welch all made Silicon Valley special.

I rate the show higher than Veep, which—despite a sensational cast—lost its way in the final seasons as it amplified nastiness to reflect the real world instead of staying true to its characters. Technology has become a darker, scarier place but the heart and motivation of our musketeers remain the same: the desire to make the world a better place (and, sure, to get rich on the way there). After six years, what it all comes down to in Silicon Valley is simply that—for better or worse—one friend decides to trust another.

Any attempt to reinvent the wheel comes with a necessary hubris: the belief that we won’t make the mistakes of the past. That this time, things will be better. It is an optimism we need in order to upgrade ourselves, but—at a time when our phones remind us to look at them less frequently —this show serves as a timely tap on the shoulder. We may need to step away. One way to make the world a better place is by letting it be.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

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