Within a few minutes of Silicon Valley’s third season, bearded ego Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) fights a robot deer named Bambot in the middle of the road. He kicks it, repeatedly, but it won’t fall down. His frustration grows. It’s perfect.
Or at least, it’s a perfect encapsulation of Silicon Valley, still vibrant three seasons in. It’s a wink to tech insiders familiar with the Boston Dynamics “Big Dog” robot, Bambot’s close cousin. It’s a whip-smart metaphor for the futility of our heroes’ efforts to conquer an unsympathetic industry. But most of all, it’s just really goddamn funny.
This Silicon Valley go-round picks up right where last year left off: brilliant, asocial coder Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) has just been fired as CEO of Pied Piper, the company he built. Rather than suffer the humiliation of serving as CTO under an outsider, and urged on by perpetual booster Jared Dunn (Zach Woods, again outstanding as Silicon Valley’s resident Job), he decides to find employment somewhere that appreciates him.
It’s not spoiling much to say that it doesn’t work out, and that Richard finds his way back to Jared, Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) at Pied Piper. All it takes is a bad experience at a joke of a start-up and a surprisingly good one with newly installed Pied Piper CEO Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky). Barker, who earned the nickname “Action Jack” through a string of Silicon Valley successes, turns out to be an experienced, level-headed, avuncular people-person, capable of winning even Erlich over with his meticulous pronunciation of “Aviato.” In other words, he’s everything the Pied Piper team was missing.
Action Jack lives up to his name, quickly setting up the team in glossy new digs befitting of decently valued start-up. There’s a chef, cool new toys – and soon, a host of salespeople, brought onboard to turn middle-out compression into over-sized profit.
And there’s the central conflict of the season, or at least how that’s how it appears to be shaping up in the first three episodes. Richard sees his compression algorithm as potentially world-changing, a chance to revolutionize how and where data is accessible. Barker couldn’t care less about changing the world; he just wants to boost the eventual stock price.
At least a few episodes in, Barker’s the best “villain” of Silicon Valley so far. In previous seasons, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), CEO of Google-inspired Hooli, never elevated much beyond caricature , a host of tech exec ills stuffed into one tight-fighting black shirt. Similarly, last year’s Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopoulos) was such an exaggerated version of Mark Cuban he was almost a cartoon.
They were also funny! And Belson, who makes a few appearances this season as well, remains so. But Barker’s something different. Unlike the two egoists before him, he turns out to be a pragmatist. He’s successful not because he’s a visionary, but because his one very specific vision is generating profit, even if that means reducing a potentially generational innovation down to a dumb grey box.
All of which means that, for the first time, the key danger for Richard, Dinesh, Gilfoyle, and Erlich isn’t stratospheric expectations. It’s the removal of any ambition whatsoever. So far, Richard has had to prove he can live up to the label of visionary. Now, he has to overcome efforts to suppress it—by the CEO of the company he founded.
What great bones to hang a season on, which may be why Silicon Valley feels more self-assured than it has occasionally before. That solid structure also helps familiar elements feel fresh. Dinesh and Gilfoyle bicker with as much venom as ever, and it’s still great. Richard’s doctor (Andy Daly) insults him to his face, and it’s still great. Jared finds himself homeless again, and… okay, maybe Jared needs a new storyline.
The insidery tech jokes still hit hard, too. A tour of a server farm quickly turns into purgatory-on-Earth; in a nice touch, the guide’s ID badge shows a much younger version of the ghoulish drone we see today. There’s no escape, and he’s just fine with it. Barker’s core business philosophy – taught today in business schools, he frequently reminds – is literally two triangles forming a square, exactly the kind of PowerPoint-friendly emptiness that makes TED audiences hungrily nod.
And then there are the jokes, which come as fast as ever. There aren’t many shows with as many memorable throw-away lines as Silicon Valley manages to cram in. No need to dwell when Jared describes Ocean’s Eleven as “a 2001 casino heist film featuring Julia Roberts and eleven men.” The trick is making sure you’re done with one laugh in time for the next one.
The battle between Richard and Action Jack takes enough turns in just the first three episodes, it’s hard to imagine how they’ll continue to stretch it for the entire season. That’s not a cause for worry, though. This is a show that’s by now so confident in itself, so sure of what works, and why, that uncertainty just means excitement for what’s coming next. Pied Piper’s future might be in doubt, but Silicon Valley’s is more assured than ever.