I know people are wondering how life goes on without Game of Thrones, but having watched three strong episodes from the final season of Silicon Valley, I’m sadder knowing that two of HBO’s all-time great comedies, Veep and this, have wrapped for good.
Comedy, HBO, and I go way back. I’m one of those kids who begged the grownups not to pull the plug on that pricey cable channel with the R-rated movies (which my dad hated; he called it “Home B.O.”). Where else was I going to see the unbleeped standup brilliance of Robin Williams, George Carlin, Roseanne Barr, and all the others from that greatest generation of stand-ups?
In the ’90s, HBO kicked things up a notch with Def Comedy Jam, Dream On, Sex and the City, The Chris Rock Show, Larry Sanders, and Dennis (We Hardly Knew Ye) Miller Live. These were groundbreaking shows that, I would argue, are what really prepared HBO’s audience for its tectonic move into drama with The Sopranos and The Wire. (HBO miniseries are routinely superb, but they’ve never felt very cutting-edge, especially not now.)
Then in the 2000s, HBO popped out all of these perfectly timed comedies: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, Flight of the Conchords, Bored to Death, Veep, and the one we come to praise today.
Silicon Valley debuted in 2014, a period when Big Tech had never enjoyed more cultural throw-weight. Yet already, the public mood had begun to sour post-Steve Jobs, post-Social Network. Our relationship with the iPhone was at the seven-year itch phase.
Enter Mike Judge, quite possibly our best cultural mimic, capable of nailing the tiny absurdities of cubicle culture (Office Space), the picayune dramas of suburbia (King of the Hill), and the mindless banter of two knotheads living next door (Beavis And Butt-Head). I wasn’t taken by his low-budget dystopia Idiocracy, but even there I had to admire how Judge could stretch such a thin concept over 80 minutes, producing a feature film that some fans insist was prophetic.
For Silicon Valley, he teamed with Alec Berg, an old hand in the HBO system from his years producing Curb Your Enthusiasm. They took Big Tech’s version of the Horatio Alger myth — brilliant kid rises from hacker house to world-beating CEO — and proceeded to deliver death to it by a thousand insults.
Silicon Valley depicted Silicon Valley as a wasteland of over-privileged employees, managers in over their heads, and venture vultures looking to spend gobs of cash on power and bragging rights. That brilliant kid, Richard (Thomas Middleditch), is also self-centered, fearful, easily-triggered, and not a great boss. As his concept becomes a company called Pied Piper and draws the interest of billionaire venture capitalists, hoodie-wearing Richard stays weirdly detached from the money and influence coming his way.
Second, as Judge and Berg found when doing show research, Big Tech culture offers an almost bottomless trove of things to mock, from its entirely too generous view of its own generosity and its ability to “make a better world” to the mindless consumerism and petty demands of its nouveau riche workforce.
Lastly, and this is really the show’s special sauce, there are just all these fantastic gags that have nothing to do with lampooning Silicon Valley and everything to do with Judge’s love of the Naked Gun films (he saw one when he briefly worked in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s and was, he recalled, “the only one in the theater laughing”). My all-time favorite remains the driverless car incident from Season 1 (and life may imitate someday), but there are great ones from Season 6 involving a Lime scooter, a fist punching through a wall, an El Pollo Loco sign, and a chair that attaches to your butt so that everywhere you go, you can take a seat.
Silicon Valley in many ways still feels like the hacker-house ensemble comedy it started out as, even though Pied Piper now has 532 employees and a thicket of fiduciary and ethical entanglements that have built up over the years and will drive the storyline these final seven episodes. (Like any good sitcom, you can jump right into this season having not seen an episode. There is a lot of dialogue involving deal terms and who-owns-what, but these are comedy writers — they don’t let such things get in the way of a punchline.)
And yet, as the show prepares to sign off — a decision that appears to be entirely the creators’ call — the goodwill that inspired this gently mocking sitcom in the first place has vanished completely. And since there’s no getting around that fact, Season 6 begins with Richard going before Congress to testify about what his app does with users’ data. He looks like a deer in the headlights, and his responses are only slightly better than the deer’s.
To be sure, this turn in the public mood does not please the show’s co-creators, who clearly intended their little satire to be, at most, a series of mosquito bites on Big Tech’s kneecaps. “It makes it harder to be silly, when things are so grave,” said Alex Berg, while Mike Judge lamented, “In the beginning it was more fun-absurd.”
They’re probably right. Like HBO’s Enlightened, Silicon Valley was a show ahead of its time, and is leaving before the fun-absurd becomes tragic-absurd (in this case the 2020 elections, or as they say in Russia, the Big Hack). Still, the unspoken premise behind the show hasn’t changed: A handful of Silicon Valley ZIP codes exert way too much influence over the rest of America, and extract far too much money from all us.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.