“Get used to Amazon being a profitable company,” instructed a Wired headline last year, two decades after the e-commerce behemoth’s launch. Amazon hasn’t wallowed in red alone. The tech industry has long felt about profits the way Sting feels about orgasms: surprisingly patient. Uber may be worth $50 billion on paper, but it’s bleeding millions. But with fears mounting of an imminent pop in the tech bubble, financial sustainability might finally become a bigger priority in San Jose.
That’s already the case in the timely and promising third season of HBO’s Silicon Valley, which debuted last night. In the premiere, Pied Piper’s new CEO, “Action” Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky), rejects founder Richard’s (Thomas Middleditch) initial plan to start making money four years down the line. His weak chin and fleece zip-ups belying his steeliness, Jack demands that the start-up be able to pay for its new fancy-dorm-lounge offices — complete with omelet chef and unpasteurized coconut water — now. Having lived through the last bubble bursting in 2000, the veteran insists on drumming up profits as quickly as possible, even if it means developing and selling a product that’s staler, clunkier, and far less ambitious than what Pied Piper was originally intended to be.
As sharp (in both senses) as they can be, Mike Judge’s comedies have never been without heart. Silicon Valley is a spot-on but ultimately gentle satire of an industry deeply embedded up its own ass, and the HBO show has always wanted its core nerd collective of coding wunderkind Richard, money guy Jared (Zach Woods), and slap-fighting programmers Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) to become kajillionaires by making their cutting-edge data-compression software the new industry standard. (One suspects that T.J. Miller’s incubator proprietor Erlich can always find his own bliss, either in his bong or in his self-aggrandizing fantasies.)
That so few shows chronicle the early days of a business is a head-scratcher, when the situation is so ripe for drama and conflict. With millions, even billions, of dollars at stake, Silicon Valley has smartly tacked toward the peculiarities of the tech industry in its account of Pied Piper’s early days. The Season 3 premiere and the two following installments find a fertile middle ground between the universal and the specific, when Richard is made an employee at the company he’d started. “You have created a company that is too valuable for you to run,” he’s told. If the humiliation of his demotion from CEO to CTO (Chief Technology Officer) wasn’t obvious enough, the show isn’t above pointing down to make it clear. Updated about Richard’s dethroning, his doctor (the recurring Andrew Daly) asks the patient to pull down his pants in next week’s episode to figure out where the programmer’s balls have gone.
In much of San Francisco, as in the movies and gaming, the nerds have exacted their revenge and then some. But Silicon Valley is a show that needs its characters to be underdogs; the willowy geeks are always struggling not to be shoved into metaphorical lockers by the likes of sociopathic tech titan Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), the CEO of a Google-like search engine company. Perhaps the series is written with that pups-squaring-off-against-the-big-dogs framing to better appeal to guilty and/or defensive real-life nerds in the Bay Area, who might find in the series a respite from being blamed for all of San Francisco’s woes. But Richard having to continually outsmart his foes — which in Season 3 appears to include a rival compression project based on his own algorithms while he’s stuck battling his boss — certainly makes for a better story than the well-meaning gentrifier who priced a poor family from their longtime home.
The last two seasons have ended in soaring near-triumphs for Richard and company. With Tobolowsky’s Jack, Silicon Valley has an interesting antagonist and a sturdy setup for the rest of the season — someone Richard should work with, but finds it impossible to do so. Jack has the business experience to lead Pied Piper into the black. But without Richard’s input (or over his protestations), the older executive might also sink it down into obsolescence.
The show’s as droll as ever, with Miller as as the comic standout. Erlich’s angry list of everything the graying Jack supposedly likes (polio, phonographs, segregated water fountain) in the premiere was charming for its brassy chutzpah, and Pied Piper’s new slogan, “Think Inside the Box,” is a clever send-up of how the industry’s attempts to disrupt itself occasionally results in some profoundly dorky idiocy. But especially during a week when the erasure of Asian-Americans dominated pop culture headlines, the constant and gratuitous jokes about Dinesh’s Pakistani origins feel increasingly lazy and bullying. In Silicon Valley, you apparently only get to be a beloved underdog if you’re already privileged by whiteness.