HBO’s tech satire “Silicon Valley” (2014–) premiered its fifth season on March 25. The series has always drawn praise for its sharp satire of the tech industry’s absurd culture and for drawing attention to some of tech’s uglier facets. At a time when Facebook is under intense public scrutiny for enabling Russian interference in the 2016 election, and when dozens of other tech companies are bedeviled by accusations of sexual harassment, facilitating hate speech and yawning gender inequality, there is ample real-world inspiration for a sharply written satire of the tech world. Unfortunately, the fifth season’s first two episodes mostly squander this potential.
Season five begins with wunderkind Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his retinue of misfits working at their startup Pied Piper. Pied Piper’s mission is to build a revolutionary “distributed internet” that will be free from the dominance of big tech companies. One such company is Hooli, a Google-like behemoth led by series villain Gavin Belson (Matt Ross). After losing his position as CEO early last season and then disappearing to Tibet on a journey of self-discovery, Gavin is back at the helm of Hooli and is hellbent on crushing Richard so that Hooli can retain its dominance. The David-versus-Goliath struggle between Richard and Gavin has always been the foundation of the series, and by re-establishing this dynamic early on, season five looks to be a rehash of earlier seasons.
Barring a few allusions to current controversies in tech, such as a couple of anemic jokes about alt-right software engineers, season five derives most of its comedy from Richard’s incompetent leadership of his rapidly growing company. In one instance, Richard is so intimidated by the prospect of delivering remarks to his 50 or so employees that he vomits, soils his pants and falls face-first through a glass panel in front of his entire company. Richard’s spectacular lack of social or leadership skills has been a source of jokes for the series since its inception, but rather than the more cerebral bits of the past, season five seems content to fall back on overwrought physical comedy where Richard is concerned.
The intense rivalry between Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) also makes a return this season and is thankfully given a more thoughtful treatment than Richard. In the first couple of episodes, the pair engages in a bizarre duel over an electric vehicle parking space that culminates in Gilfoyle purchasing a Mad Max-esque electric vehicle on Cragslist and Dinesh crashing his brand new Tesla. But even when well-executed, a silly, pedantic competition between Dinesh and Gilfoyle is well-trodden ground for the series and feels stale.
Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang), the Chinese “intern” who inhabits the same hacker hostel as Richard and friends, redeems this season’s early episodes somewhat. Jian-Yang is engaged in a hamfisted consipiracy to falsely prove the death of Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), who is currently languishing in a Chinese opium den, so that he can inherit Bachman’s estate. Bachman was written out of the show last season amid rumors of acrimony between Miller and the show’s producers, and Jian-Yang is clearly intended to replace Bachman. Jian-Yang’s macabre explanations of the logistics of faking Erlich’s death are delightfully weird and easily the highlight of season five’s opening.
In all, the fifth season is disappointing. All the elements that made the previous seasons great are still in place, but rehashed and recycled. The bevy of controversies that have beset tech over the past year are scarcely addressed and an overreliance on physical comedy diminishes the wit that won “Silicon Valley” such acclaim. Diehard fans of the series may find something to enjoy here, but for those who are not already invested, so far “Silicon Valley” season five is one to skip.