In the third season of Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley, despite continued monetary security and plenty of ego-polishing, Pied Piper’s core group of engineers run up against a purveying sense of failure and forced compromise. After being summarily dismissed as CEO of Pied Piper by Laurie Beam (Suzanne Cryer), Richard (Thomas Middleditch) is asked to stay on as CTO under new CEO Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky), an exceedingly wealthy “hitter” who’s headed a handful of billion-dollar-valued companies. It’s not how Richard envisioned his future, but he takes the offer, and this seemingly humble and logical decision precedes a series of major fumbles and callous corporate maneuvers that allows Judge to consider the psychological tactics, egotistical behavior, and sheer absurdity that clash together at the impasse of business and technology. More than ever in the show’s run, the fight between creativity and commerce that the Pied Piper team witnesses throughout the season reflects Judge’s own oft-public Hollywood troubles.
Indeed, anyone who followed Judge’s fight to get his prescient Idiocracy onto the big screen will see shades of his struggles with the controlling, unoriginal factions of film distribution, production, and marketing in the unpleasant situation that Richard and his team find themselves in under Barker. At first, Pied Piper’s new CEO seems ideal, offering them a gorgeous new office, a private kitchen with its own chef, coolers full of coconut water, and all the tech gear they could ask for. The spoils of becoming a well-evaluated company are initially enough to make Richard, Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) trust Barker and his sales team. It’s at least enough to make them not immediately fly off the handle when it’s revealed that the new CEO’s business plan is to sell their state-of-the-art data compression system strictly to corporations, rather than offer it for free to the public before then monetizing the system for corporate clients. Judge doesn’t make selling out look or feel repellant at first, and through the witty writing and Tobolowsky’s expert delivery, Barker convincingly makes the idea of not giving up your creative and intellectual freedoms for profits sound almost selfish and petty.
Silicon Valley continues to offer a variety of symbolic inventions and images that highlight the laughably bizarre means by which the tech industry attempts to replace organic ideas with clearly false, market-driven opportunism. Gilfoyle and Dinesh’s use of a short acronym to avoid having to actually express their liking of Richard and the watermelon-Jell-O-filled watermelon rind that Dinesh enjoys are just two of a myriad of inventive physical manifestations of the technology market’s ludicrous attempts to look and act more humanitarian despite being exclusively capitalistic at heart. This might all be misconstrued as cheap, empty laughs if the series wasn’t so consistently on the ball when it comes to the lingo, advancements, and questionable acts of censorship and fiscally motivated corruption that have become part and parcel of surviving in the titular tech hub.
At one point, Hooli founder Galvin Benson (Matt Ross) lays off a large portion of employees in the hope of gaining back the stock shares he lost via the Nucleus bungle, and asks the remaining members of the Nucleus team to scrub the Internet of any bad Hooli or Nucleus news before they leave. The last bit represents a move not dissimilar to UC Davis’s attempts to eliminate negative search results for the peaceful campus protest that ended with students being brazenly pepper-sprayed by university police.
Unlike Benson, Richard and his team have never really tasted unadulterated success in their work, if only because they believe, without exception, in their freemium model for their compression algorithm. The first few episodes of the new season constantly circle back to the simple mistakes and moments of frustrated sarcasm that can throw a good idea or even a whole career into tumult. During a meeting with the sales force, who all hilariously feel the need to reintroduce themselves, an annoyed Richard offers a snarky retort to the constant diminishing of his ideas by suggesting that they should just lock away his algorithm in a box, an idea that plays very well with the sales team. Staring at the seemingly endless, maze-like warehouse where such secure boxes are stored, the Pied Piper team members act as if they’re being shown their slots in a mausoleum. And after Richard, along with Dinesh, Gilfoyle, Ehrlich (T.J. Miller), and Jerrod (Zach Woods), formulates a killer plan to subvert Barker’s plans, soundtracked by Herbie Hancock’s infectiously funky “Chameleon,” the plans are put into seemingly direct danger by the Pied Piper creator literally not looking where he steps in order to offer a snarky criticism.
For an artist like Judge who’s constantly sought to engage with big questions of economic struggle, societal discourse, employment, and political belief, and who has a reputation for being a bit of a cynic, one can only imagine the similar sorts of messes he’s found himself in, the business deals and connections ruined by his not knowing when to shut up or cave in. The writer-director’s television successes, such as Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill, have given him plenty of opportunities, but considering how hard it is to get a film made on your own personal terms, it’s not that surprising that he’s only been able to complete three (fantastic) features thus far. Silicon Valley, then, may end up being recognized as Judge’s magnum opus in this sense—a complicated, heartfelt, and intensely uproarious articulation of the struggle to freely realize one’s creative yearnings, whether in business, technology, or art.