When castmember Martin Starr jokingly referred to the fourth season of the HBO comedy as "Silicon Valley: Civil War" at the show's Austin, Texas, premiere, he was hinting at the new direction of the series.
The latest season of the tech-spoofing comedy, which returned Sunday night, turns its attention to the internal conflicts plaguing the group of programmers, instead of the external roadblocks they typically face.
"This season they make a big move," says Mike Judge, who co-created the series with Alec Berg. "I think we've realized - and our characters have realized - that they can't pivot anymore. They have to make a decision to go for something big."
That new pursuit sends Richard (Thomas Middleditch) on a journey of his own that has him questioning his loyalty to Erlich (T.J. Miller), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Jared (Zach Woods).
"We had talked in the first season actually about Richard having a Breaking Bad-type thing, where he starts to get a little corrupted by it all," adds Judge. "We finally look at this this season."
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the showrunner ahead of the show's premiere to talk about why this season will lay the groundwork for the rest of the series, how a potential writers' strike would impact the show and what it's like pulling storylines from real-life headlines.
What can you tease about where the guys are headed this season?
This season they make a big move. They swing for the fences. I think we've realized - and our characters have realized - that they can't pivot anymore. They have to make a decision to go for something big. There's some different stories, too. There's sort of the revenge of Jian Yang [Jimmy O. Yang] going on this season. We have a new girlfriend of one of the characters. A major league hacker enters the picture. So, this season in one way is more of the same, but it feels like it gets bigger.
That big move you're talking about is Richard attempting to reinvent the Internet, yes?
Yeah, there's this idea of changing the way the entire Internet works. It's basically starting a new Internet that's a decentralized version, similar to the way Bitcoin works, that can't be shut down by anybody because it's sharded out over multiple devices and spread out in the block chain model. It's something that people really have been working on out in the world. We had thought about doing it last season but thought it would be something we'd save.
Was that an idea that came from one of the show's tech consultants?
Yeah, Jonathan Dotan was talking about it. We ask him a lot of questions. It started out with, "OK, this compression algorithm, what are all the ways you could go?" There's some stuff we didn't do. For example, a lossless compression algorithm is actually really useful in bio tech with DNA and gene mapping and stuff - but we didn't go that route. So different things like that come up, and at one point Jonathan was telling us about this sharded version of the Internet that people were thinking about and how the Chinese government couldn't shut it down if people started doing it this way. So it just started with him telling us how it works and how it could be something. Then we started talking about, what would be the way in? Well, you start with some small app and sort of sneak the model out to get people using that. We basically start by looking at technically how would these things really happen and then we find funny stories in that. We have the funny stories grow out of what this company would really be doing.
We see more tension this season between Richard and the rest of the guys. Was that always the design?
Well, a lot of time we're sitting there in the writers' room racking our brains. In season one, in the fifth episode we just said, "OK, let's just start pairing two of them together and see if we can think of story." And back then, it was Erlich and Dinesh. So we thought, "We haven't done a Richard and Dinesh story in a while, just purely those two." And that's kind of how this came about, because it's Dinesh's video chat and it goes to his head. We wanted to build up a feud between those two. We had talked in the first season actually about Richard having a Breaking Bad-type thing, where he starts to get a little corrupted by it all. So we finally look at this this season.
Thomas did tell THR recently that there's a door cracking open for a "Breaking Bad of season five."
Definitely. It's funny, I tell people who ask, "Is Thomas really like that?" I say no. It would be as if you had never seen Robin Williams in anything and then he went and played an introverted nerdy guy. Thomas actually has an amazing range and lots of character in him. This is just one of them.
What's the story behind Haley Joel Osment's casting?
When we were casting the show originally, Haley had read for Erlich and he may have even come in for Richard. I thought it was really good and I felt like there was a place for him in this world and in this show. I could never quite find it, but he was always sort of in the back of my mind. I think I considered him for something else in the second or third season. He came in and read for this and we just really liked it. Like what I did with the original pilot after we did a table read of the first script, we went back and tweaked it a little bit more for him to make him more of this guy who good things just happen to him all the time and he just soaks it up. He's really good at playing that. It's been really fun having him this season. He just really fit the show well.
Would you bring him back next season?
Yeah, we've talked about it. That would be nice, if we could make the storylines work.
Any other surprise castings this season?
We tend to not use big, recognizable people. I know Haley has been in stuff recently but he's got this giant beard now. [Laughs.] Hopefully the character's not overshadowed by the actor being an Oscar guy. We have a lot of new characters this season but none of them are played by anybody famous.
Who are your dream cameos?
We keep trying to get Zuckerberg or Bill Gates.
And Elon Musk?
God, I'd love to have him on show.
Have any real-life tech players reached out to you to be on the show this season?
We put Emily Chang from Bloomberg on and a couple of CNBC and CNN people said, "Hey, what about us?" [Laughs.]
Is there a live horse sex moment this year or any surprises to look forward to?
No. [Laughs.] We don't really think that way. We're never going, "Hey, let's come up with our new outrageous dick joke," or anything like that. I can say that there is some sex that's not with horses. I don't want to jinx it, but I think there's some really big funny stuff that happens. The tech world is very outrageous and we take full advantageous of that.
So we'll finally see some romance?
There's some good romance and some crazy romance. There's a little bit of violence, too. So sex and a tiny bit of violence. Just some slaps. Now that we're not following Game of Thrones, we don't need to be the antidote to it so we can throw a little bit of violence in there.
Have you drawn from any recent headlines in the tech world, like the recent Uber saga?
We have, except that happened too late. We were pretty much almost done shooting. But there's some stuff that had nothing to do with that that might be similar. You can see in the trailer when we have Erlich mansplaining what mansplaining is. There are at least two specific things that we pulled from stuff we know from the tech world, even before it was in the news.
In the first episode, we see Thomas pitching his start-up idea to his Uber passenger. Surely that was inspired by real events, yes?
Yeah, that happens in Hollywood, too. It's actually happened to me. It's like you're held hostage by your Uber driver. [Laughs.]
Are you infusing any political events into this season? Has Trump had any effect on the story you're telling?
No, we were done writing by that point and no one saw that coming. [Laughs.] We were actually shooting the seventh or eighth episode when that happened and had written the rest. Who knows, maybe next season that will make its way in. It will be interesting to see what happens. There's this sort of libertarian element of Silicon Valley so I don't know. But I'm sure between now and when we're writing something will probably happen that will make its way in, if it hasn't already. We haven't really thought about next season at all yet because we always put everything we got into the current season and worry about the rest later.
If a writers' strike were to happen, how might it impact Silicon Valley?
I guess it would just have to push us by however many months the strike is. I think we were scheduled to come back mid-June or something like that. So yeah, it would definitely affect when it airs. I haven't been following it really closely - but from what I hear, it might happen. We are trying to finish our ADR stuff before that happens because I think you can't write new lines for ADR, and we do quite a bit of that.
You mentioned earlier that the gang has pivoted for the last time. Is this new endeavor ideally going to take them through the end of the series?
I mean, anything could happen. We could come up with another idea, but that's the intention. And there are a lot of levels to it. To do something that big, there's a lot of different ways to do it. With those sort of things, you don't say, "Hey, everybody in the world. Switch over to this." So it's an interesting challenge in the writing and how you make that happen organically.
You said before that five or six seasons seemed like a good length for the show. Is that still the case?
I guess it's not up to us. HBO hasn't even announced a fifth yet. But six seasons seem to be the standard for something like this, which seems fine to me. I'd be happy with that.