As the fourth, astute-as-ever season of Silicon Valley begins, tech genius/screw-up Richard Hendricks once again proves that he is so allergic to success that his body physically rejects it.
In the first episode, Richard, played by Thomas Middleditch with every nerve standing at attention, has been biting his nails so feverishly that he has to dip them in iodine to stop himself, and even that’s not an adequate preventative measure.
“Subconsciously,” he says, “I would rather bite my own fingers off than work on this platform.” The platform he’s referring to is Piper Chat, a high-definition video-chat app that Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) developed as a side project last season and whose audience keeps growing. With the reputation of Richard’s company, Pied Piper, sullied after a scandal involving the fudging of user numbers, Piper Chat is the most viable, potentially lucrative way to make use of Richard’s beloved baby, his compression algorithm. And yet, once again, his instincts are telling him to pivot away from that opportunity.
That’s the setup for a season of Silicon Valley in which, for the first time, the Pied Piper team’s focus is divided. Though everyone is still housed under the same roof in Ehrlich’s so-called incubator, Dinesh, Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), Jared (Zach Woods), and Big Head (Josh Brener) zero in on Piper Chat, while Richard, buoyed by a vote of confidence from wealthy douchebag investor Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopoulos), starts working on his master plan to invent an entirely new, more powerful, unregulated internet. To put this in a Fate of the Furious context, if I may, Richard becomes the Dominic Toretto of the group, separated (somewhat) from the family in order to complete his own mission. (Before you ask, this is Silicon Valley, so no one is the Rock in this scenario. Although one could argue that, given their constant bickering, Dinesh and Guilfoyle are the Ludacris and Tyrese of the bunch.)
The splintering of the group enables the series to open new channels of competitiveness between the principal characters while also continuing to do what it does best: develop admirably intricate story lines about high-tech-sector politics as well as the inevitability that those who either possess or covet power will engage in petty behavior. The first three episodes also give Middleditch, in particular, the chance to do some of his finest comedic work on the series. The third episode has some hilarious Richard moments, including one that involves him experiencing a feeling he is totally unaccustomed to: justified, unmitigated joy. “Can I try something?” he says to Jared, then mildly shouts, “Woo!” as if he’s just learning how to ride a celebration bike but isn’t ready to take off the training wheels yet. Meanwhile Jared, ever eager to please, starts shouting “Woo!” as if he’s just had a psychotic break. Which is to say: Yeah, Woods is very good this season, too.
As per usual, the machinations within the Pied Piper crowd; Hooli, the show’s Google stand-in; and venture-capital firm Raviga Corp. yield some very funny set pieces, including a brilliantly executed season-opening sequence that involves a product demo, an irritated potential investor, and a gross misrepresentation of Uber. There’s also a recurring issue involving people who get on their boss’s bad sides and wind up with offices in the worst possible places. A notable character who works at Hooli ticks off CEO Gavin Belson — for totally trivial reasons, of course — and lands a desk in subbasement D. If for some reason you forgot that Mike Judge, writer and director of Office Space, co-created Silicon Valley, that moment instantly serves as a reminder.
Like a lot of comedies, Silicon Valley is so skilled at eliciting laughter that it’s easy to overlook how much craftsmanship is involved in pulling that off. The production design is detailed in ways that feel true to both the start-up and glossy corporate sides of tech culture, but that also add additional layers to the humor. (You instantly know that Monica’s new nemesis at Raviga is a basic jackass, for example, because he has a massive, framed Tom Brady jersey hanging on his office wall.) As much as any drama on television right now, Silicon Valley also takes twist and turns that viewers don’t necessarily anticipate, but that feel fully supported and believable because the narrative structure has been so carefully constructed by the writers.
Will Richard really invent a new internet? Will any of these clearly intelligent yet stunted guys ever succeed in this competitive town built on ideas that sound like the next big thing but, as Ehrlich points out, could just be vapor? I honestly have no idea. That Silicon Valley is still so sharp and delightfully absurdist in its fourth season is an achievement. The fact that it can still surprise, and even make viewers want to bite their own nails while watching, is what makes it one of the best comedies on television.