‘Silicon Valley’: Innovation vs. Integrity, With Laughs

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

“Pied Piper is a video-chat company; get your head around that,” says Kumail Nanjiani’s Dinesh in the fourth-season premiere of Silicon Valley, starting Sunday on HBO. He’s talking to Richard (Thomas Middleditch), who is still trying to use his superduper compression algorithm to keep the dream of Pied Piper1.0 alive, while everyone else in the show’s funky adult frat house has moved on.

The challenge for Valley in its fourth season was to somehow parallel the nonstop innovation that occurs in the real-life Silicon Valley while retaining the elements that have made this comedy a success — primarily, the constant, abrasive interactions between brilliant losers Dinesh, Richard, Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), Jared (Zach Woods), and Erlich (T.J. Miller). Based on the three episodes made available for review, Silicon Valley has innovated to just the right degree.

By making Richard the stubborn stick-in-the-mud and aligning the rest of the house against him — it’s the idealist versus the impatient money-grubbers — Valley sets up a drama in this comedy that is surprisingly compelling. Producer-writer-director Mike Judge and his collaborators make us invested in both sides of this argument, and therefore engaged in the battle for Pied Piper’s head, heart, and soul. Much like its time-period partner, Veep, Silicon Valley is remarkably adept at servicing a big cast. Look for an increased role — and a very welcome one — for Josh Brener’s Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti, whose shy-guy genius is used in a new academic setting, about which I will say no more.

Running alongside the main storyline are significant developments at Hooli, sparked by another combustible interaction, this one between amoral executive Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) and Stephen Tobolowsky’s “Action” Jack Barker. They — along with Suzanne Cryer’s socially stunted yet ruthlessly brilliant Raviga Capital CEO Laurie Bream — embody the show’s ongoing satire of high-level corporate intrigue and casual cruelty. At Reviga, we find Monica (Amanda Crew) — in previous seasons too often tucked away as a potential love interest for Richard — coming into her own as a character, one who has to deploy all her wiles to overcome the lowly status to which Laurie has consigned her. (A recurring gag about the unsavory location of her new, demotion-level office at Raviga is always good for a laugh.)

Really, the biggest change for me between last season and this one is that I’m suffering from just a little Middleditch exhuastion, especially after seeing him essentially play this same character in that Verzion drop-the-mic commercial we’ve probably all seen a thousand times now. (Advice to actors: Use commercials to do a variation on, or a complete break from, the character that made you famous, lest you find yourself typecast.)

“That’s the old thing; this is the new thing,” says Richard in the premiere. He’s talking about the latest application for technology that I, and perhaps you, can barely grasp, yet which Valley somehow always invests with an urgency that’s contagious for viewers. But he’s also implying the new stakes that imperil the fortunes and friendships of our heroes — the stuff that makes Silicon Valley so absorbing four seasons in.

Silicon Valley airs Sunday nights at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.