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How 'Silicon Valley' Tells Broad Truths From An Insular World

Zach Woods, T.J. Miller, Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, and Martin Starr.
Frank Masi
Zach Woods, T.J. Miller, Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, and Martin Starr.

HBO's Silicon Valley ends its second season Sunday night with a finale I have seen and will warn you is so tense that I actually skipped forward a little bit at one point. That's how suspenseful I found it. And remember: it's a comedy.

Created by Mike Judge, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, the show follows a startup called Pied Piper, run by monumentally hapless founder Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch). Richard is a basically kind, loyal, anxious, twitchy dude who is very good at compression algorithms and very bad at taking deep breaths at any time. He operates out of an incubator owned by Ehrlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), a strangely charismatic complete idiot who fancies himself a kingmaker. (Okay, not a complete idiot. But mostly an idiot.) Richard also employs programmers Gilfoyle (a perpetually seething Martin Starr) and Dinesh (a perpetually mellow but quizzical Kumail Nanjiani) and CFO Jared (Zach Woods). The team works alongside Monica (Amanda Crews), a representative of the venture capital firm that's got a huge investment in Pied Piper.

The blessing and the curse of Silicon Valley is that it's set in a very specific universe. You will hear a lot about incubators, investors, buyouts, network security, coding, conferences, a giant company called Hooli (essentially this universe's Google), various versions of software launching — and keep in mind that Richard's company is in the business of file compression. He started out wanting to make a music app, but now all these people are deeply engaged in perhaps the unsexiest thing they could possibly do with themselves: making files smaller for the purposes of transmission. You might as well be employed full-time packing people's suitcases tighter.

Of course, file compression is critical to the functioning of companies like Goo — sorry, Hooli, and that's why there's so much money in it. That's why Hooli founder Gavin Belson (played with waxen flair by Matt Ross) has done countless unscrupulous things trying to get control of Pied Piper or, if he can't do that, destroy it. It is nevertheless a really really boring business around which to structure a show if you're not going to explain how good you have to be to do it well. Without that technical knowledge on the part of the audience, it's like making a sitcom about a sports team, but the sport is competitively folding pieces of paper into thirds.

But the surprise of the show's second season, which has been stronger than its first was, has increasingly been that in addition to being reliably funny, it somehow feels familiar as a workplace show, despite being so much a creature of its bro-intensive world in which practically nobody ever goes outside for any purpose other than a meeting he's dreading and the stakes arise from a business with a purpose as superficially mundane as you can imagine. (It's no radio station or bar or White House, setting-wise.)

The Sisyphean nature of Richard's quest is central: his effort to maintain control of Pied Piper and keep it from dying is threatened by everything from machinations and legal maneuvering by billionaires at the most sophisticated levels to somebody accidentally leaving an object wedged against a keyboard's "Delete" key. And, of course, he is often his own worst enemy, not for the reasons he anticipates (ineptitude, sabotage) but for the ones he doesn't (outsmarting himself, primarily). He wants to be as successful as Gavin Belson and, if he's honest, he probably wants to be as rich as Gavin Belson, but he doesn't want to be Gavin Belson. The entire animating question of the show is Can it be different? And, really, Can I make it different?

That's Richard's underlying struggle — not against Hooli, and not against Belson, but against despair. It's a struggle against giving up and just being the same kind of rich, powerful, unscrupulous garbage person he feels like everybody else is, because he's probably got the chops for it if he wanted to go that route, and it sometimes feels like not going that route makes him an eternal punching bag for everyone who does.

The battle is not really for Pied Piper; it's for these guys' souls, because they're all up against it in different ways: Richard is a weary idealist with way too much power for his level of management experience, Gilfoyle purports to hate everyone because he doesn't trust anyone, Dinesh is a very sweet person who needs absolutely everything except programming to be handled by somebody else (and is therefore chum for sharks), and Jared is literally the most earnest character on television and is therefore the pariah, because even in a house full of socially awkward people, somebody's always at the bottom, wanting to be liked.

And, of course, surrounding all of this is some profoundly silly comedy, this season including an egg-in-the-nest cam, a critical Post-It, an app called Bro, an energy drink, and a lot of other stuff.

So here, on a show full of guys whose priorities don't resonate with me at all, I find myself deeply invested in this question of whether they will beat ... not really Gavin Belson, but hopelessness. In a strange way, they really are dreamers, even if a big part of the dream is money. Silicon Valley engages — around a lot of really good and often very silly comedy — with the question of whether tech guys are, as they're so often positioned, our new visionaries, or our new robber barons, or both.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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