During “Silicon Valley’s” six-season life span, we’ve allowed technology to have ever more access to our homes, turning our phones into house keys, our doorbells into video sentries and our thermostats into prison wardens. We’ve let in Alexa and other listening devices, welcoming them as helpful friends. We gave our fingerprints and faces to our phones and laptops and, quite probably, the Chinese. We bought televisions that watch us at least as much we watch them.
We forked over our personal tastes and entertainment options to outfits such as Spotify, Grubhub, Amazon Prime and Netflix – marveling at how they seem to know us. And, of course, there’s no limit to the private details we happily supplied to Facebook, Twitter and Google. What’s most astounding is that we give it all away for free, devaluing our privacy and even a significant part of our being.
In a subversive and often subliminal way, that’s what “Silicon Valley” warned us about. The HBO comedy, which concluded Sunday with a somewhat disappointingly soft finale, followed the often-hilarious victory/failure cycles of a fictional start-up called Pied Piper, which tried and ultimately failed to offer the public a faster, better alternative to the Internet – “the Internet we deserve,” as it was described.
The show’s Charlie Brown-style genius, Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), never reached his goal. After a last-minute programming breakthrough that kept Pied Piper’s outdoor festival, “RussFest,” from becoming a Fyre Festival-like PR debacle, Richard and his partners – Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), Monica (Amanda Crew) and Jared (Zach Woods) – experienced one last defeat, of a literal and corny sort, as Pied Piper’s product launch was marred by a wireless signal that summoned forth a plague of rats across the land.
Time and again, “Silicon Valley” excelled at letting us hope that Pied Piper had finally found billion-dollar success, when really, the show was mainly about the hubris of tech. The consistent idea lurking at the center of the show was, in its way, radical and true: Tech is a failure and tech is the enemy. At heart, Richard and company wanted to make it right again, though they, too, were often blinded by the shiny things.
What “Silicon Valley” wanted most was a great, big reboot for all of us, eliminating the compromised chaos wrought by greedy, egocentric tech titans such as the founder of Hooli, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), a character who served as a mash-up of tech’s male icons: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos (who, yes, owns The Washington Post). Through Gavin, the show could indict the industry’s various shades of egotism, audacity, selfishness, sexism, racism, greed and general arrogance toward the consumer.
“Silicon Valley,” co-created by Mike Judge and tended to by Alec Berg (“Barry”) and a long list of other executive producers, was first and foremost a satire; it proved once again that comedy, not drama, is the more effective way to hold up a mirror to society – and to mock those who would rule over us.
Just as I’d rather re-watch “Veep” than be forced to re-watch “The West Wing,” I’d take “Silicon Valley’s” shrewd observations over the many uneven and sober attempts to dramatize the rise of digital culture, whether in films (“The Social Network,” “Steve Jobs”) or TV (National Geographic’s “Valley of the Boom,” or even AMC’s beautiful yet flawed “Halt and Catch Fire”).
Even though “Silicon Valley” lost some of its potency in recent seasons, it was the first sendup of the tech industry that broke through where previous attempts had stumbled, a show that understood the real meat of the matter did not exist merely in lampooning the cliched life and times of meganerds.
“Silicon Valley” made that part look easy, because it is: In Jared’s apostle-like devotion to Richard was an element of emotional displacement masked by workplace subservience. In the tormentor/tormentee relationship between Gilfoyle and Dinesh, viewers could also see a productive rivalry that degrades into mutually assured destruction and a strange form of codependence. “Face it, Dinesh, you’re gay for my code,” Gilfoyle once said. “You’re code-gay.”
The show’s real achievement, however, was in sticking it to tech’s ruling class – the billionaires, the venture capitalists, the lawyers, the liars. What was more perfect than that early scene of Richard’s idol, tech guru Peter Gregory (played by the late Christopher Evan Welch), pulling away from a crowded valet-parking situation in a prototype of an ultra-narrow car built for one, bypassing all traffic with narcissistic efficiency. It presaged the scooter craze that took over our sidewalks, along with the scooter-bro arrogance that made it possible.
“Silicon Valley” was torn between relishing and deploring tech’s male entitlement. Its funniest bit came at the end of Season 1, when an argument about mutual masturbation techniques inspired Richard to write the code for Pied Piper’s landmark innovation – a “middle out,” “tip-to-tip efficiency” for compressing media files, leading to unfathomably improved speed and user experience. Like tech, it was a guy thing all the way.
And that is where the show’s work remains unfinished and leaves viewers most in need of a new show, just as funny and just as smart, only this time about women in tech – and the lack of equality therein. All the studies, initiatives and op-eds about this persistent discrimination are fine, but what really works in our world is the stinging bite of satire.
“Silicon Valley” may have been telling us as much in one of its last scenes, set 10 years in the future, when Richard and the gang visit the house where it all began, Erlich Bachman’s start-up “incubator” for talented male programmers. In this future, Richard has become the Gavin Belson Professor of Ethics and Technology at Stanford University (and his dimwitted friend, Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti, played by Josh Brener, has become Stanford’s president); Jared cares for the elderly; Monica claims to work for a Washington think tank (which is taken to mean she works for the NSA); and Dinesh and Gilfoyle, fittingly, co-own a cybersecurity firm.
As they reminisce in the dining area where they once so frantically wrote code, the homeowner’s daughter, who goes to Stanford and has never heard the inglorious history of Pied Piper, pitches them the project she’s working on: using DNA to automate personal planning and scheduling.
Horrifying idea, but progress all the same. To borrow the show’s oft-repeated example of the industry’s smarmiest idealism, shouldn’t women also have an opportunity to make the world a better place? Likewise, don’t they deserve a shot at making it worse?