This is a spoiler-free review of the first three episodes of Silicon Valley season 4.
I always wonder why we call sitcoms “sitcoms.”
What is it about translating comedy to television that necessitated the addition of “situation” before “comedy?” Is it to differentiate between scripted TV comedy and the multitude of sketch and talk comedy shows that TV has almost always had to offer? Well if that’s the case, why not just go with “scripted comedy” or “scriptcom?”
Isn’t “situation” sort of implied by any narrative-based art form? After all, every story is fundamentally made up of situations. Even if a character is just blankly staring at a wall for 22 minutes, that’s that character’s situation. Is Star Wars a situation sci-fi Western?
Anywho, all of this is to say: Silicon Valley season 4 is good.
“Sitcom” may be a confusing, pointless term but if there’s any show on television that comes closest to justifying it, it’s Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is ostensibly a comedy. It’s also at least 50% “situation.” The narrative in Mike Judge’s now four-year-old HBO production moves with a furious pace that might be unprecedented for a half-hour comedy.*
* It’s no coincidence that the half-hour comedy that comes closest to matching Silicon Valley’s pace is its HBO sister Veep.
Every comedy has a way of capturing both the viewers’ attention and their laughs. Some prefer sight gags, some prefer dialogue, some prefer creative soundtrack choices and editing. There’s no one way to skin a comedic cat. Silicon Valley borrows from these comedic strategies and standbys and adds one of its one: an absolute disregard for any level of narrative restraint…and it’s wonderful.
Yes, Silicon Valley season 4 is good and I’d like to tell you why being that this is, you know, a review and all. But it’s difficult to do so. Not unlike previous seasons, what makes Silicon Valley season 4 special is the fast pace in which the plot moves and the tremendous amount of unfortunate “situations” that pile up on our protagonist as though they were (Steve) Job.* Spoiling all the various new twists, turns and situations would be unfair.
* That might be the most specific joke I’ve ever written. Enjoy it, you combination theologian/tech nerd/grammar jockeys.
Season 4 opens shortly after the events of season 3. Richard Hendrix’s (Thomas Middleditch) compression algorithm application Pied Piper has failed – mostly due to the Pied Piper team’s inability to realize that the general public can’t quite wrap their head around why they would need a compression algorithm application. Richard, Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), Erlich (T.J. Miller) Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Jared (Zach Woods) are focused on “pivoting” Richard’s algorithm into finetuning the voice chat app that Dinesh developed with it. Though finding investors for the new app proves difficult considering Richard’s cratered reputation in the tech world from the failure of Pied Piper.
Meanwhile, Hooli CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) is basking in the glow of his victory in the Hooli Endframe project with Jack “Action” Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky) though some hilariously petty issues threaten to turf that relationship.
And this is where I leave you. Spoilers don’t normally have the same bite for half-hour comedies but in Silicon Valley’s case, the surprising developments in the plot are so crucial to the humor of the show.
So much of what makes Silicon Valley work is the not just the show’s willingness to tread new ground but to do so very quickly and then immediately discard it.
There is a wonderful moment in last season’s third episode “Meinertzhagen’s Haversack” where Richard and company decide to sabotage Jack Barker’s new vision for Pied Piper and come up with their own plan to develop Richard’s app in secret. It seems as though the show is setting up the rest of the season to be a cat and mouse game between Richard and Barker where Richard will get to finish his app and ultimately win against the evil Jack. Then in the episode’s closing moments, Richard trips and spills some incriminating documents he meant to shred directly in front of Jack, who picks them up, immediately and hilariously ending the conspiracy. The first few episodes of season 4 are filled with equally brilliant comedically undercutting moments.
Silicon Valley values the “situation” factor of the sitcom equation and almost seems to challenge itself to include as many new situations and developments as jokes. The result is a show that doesn’t have to rely on just being funny. Silicon Valley is at times legitimately thrilling and exciting and fun. It’s fun to watch Richard and his friends fail repeatedly and then come up with new, innovative ways to move on.
Only the first episode of this season is relatively static, and consequently the least effective of the bunch. Episodes two and three, however, “pivot” from situation to situation. It seems like every few minutes there is a gag or a situation that could safely set up an entire season of television only to immediately be sacrificed for comedic effect. That’s what real confidence in both comedy and storytelling looks like. Silicon Valley is one of TV’s better comedies precisely because the writers come up with they must feel are their best ideas, only to throw them away.
Outside of storytelling aerobatics, there is plenty “conventional” style comedy to appreciate in Silicon Valley season 4. Jared is on absolute fire to begin the season. “I’ve always been very adept at taking the shape of whatever shoe pressed down upon me,” he says earnestly in response to yet another newly introduced plot point in the first episode. This is after he reveals that giving manicures was a means of survival for him when he was on the streets, of course. Dinesh is another season winner, given exciting new opportunities to fail and making the best of them.
Silicon Valley is not a “happy place” comedy – something with episodes that can reliably be rewatched ad nauseum just to spend more time with its wonderful characters. It’s more of a breakneck race from one issue to the next. Where it will eventually end for the Pied Piper boys no one can say. The journey has certainly been worth going on though.