In the land of spectrum disorders, the man who can make eye contact is king. And on the new season of Silicon Valley that man is “Action” Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky), a nerd whisperer with an Italianate mansion, a knack for flattery, and the people skills to not only bring ousted Pied Piper CEO Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) back into the fold, but force the fundamental restructuring of a $50-million business without walking in the door.
Silicon Valley is the rare show capable of turning an avatar of white male privilege, a Davos-attending mansplanation in a cashmere cardigan, into a messianic character. The gospel here is professionalism, the greedy selflessness of disciplined capitalism — and it will be preached softly, but forcefully to receptive, if distractible, disciples. The employees of Pied Piper are already recalibrating their relationships as their collective becomes a company, and their show becomes a workplace drama.
For the last two seasons, Pied Piper has functioned as something very close to an improvisational group. Richard Hendricks, Erich Bachman, Bertram Gilfoyle, Dinesh Chugtai, and “Jared” Dunn, have bounced around the valley “yes and”-ing a parade of narcissists, geniuses, robots, and Sand Hill Road wannabes. Though the show has always had a narrative, story has generally been less important than the set-up for an elaborate joke (season one’s middle out dick joke being the masterpiece of the form). This worked for a while, but all that beta-male incompetence created a structural problem with the show by placing too much important on Richard’s algorithm, the monetization of which was becoming a MacGuffin. If Richard Hendricks was only capable of devaluing his great idea, there was no reason to root for him.
By introducing Jack Barker, showrunner Mike Judge is doing the unavoidable, restructuring his series by giving it the vector provided by a character of purpose. Will Jack Barker turn out to be totally bizarre? Almost certainly. (If not, why hire Stephen Tobolowsky?) But before he outs himself as a Woodside sociopath or Hoover Institute libertarian, Barker is going to ask the men of Pied Piper to reconsider their relationships. In fact, his mere presence demands this. It’s tempting to believe that the “RIGBY” conversation between Dinesh and Gilfoyle is really about debating their loyalty to Richard as he plans to leave his company. It isn’t. Their conversation — and the one that follows when they can’t parse Richard’s code — is about how to best pursue their professional self interest. They lack the ability to have the conversation in straightforward terms, but they’re essentially acknowledging that their emotional relationship to their product is less important than the financial one.
And that’s fine, by the way. The good thing about the transition is that it will inevitably lead to internecine conflict, which will certainly seem more dynamic and believable than the one-off confrontations that over-salted last season. Our protagonists will turn on each other in a gentle, corporate way, and that’s where Silicon Valley will get interesting again.
The show has real access at this point. (Judge used a military scout robot built by Boston Dynamics, which Google put up for sale recently, as a sight gag) and has also done enough world-building that the audience gets it. What does that mean for the newly professionalized Silicon Valley? That it can lampoon more than just the culture of the Bay Area and tech-dom; it can mock the way companies within that ecosystem function. The show is only going to get more pointed as it transitions from poking fun at its characters to poking fun at the norms of an industry that takes a bit too much pride in flouting norms. Mike Judge is about to take a healthy bite out of the hand that thinks it feeds him. Don’t expect people to be wearing those Pied Piper shirts at SXSW this year.
Over the course of two seasons, Silicon Valley has built up a ton of good will in Menlo Park and Palo Alto. Expect it to be gone pre-IPO.