Twenty years ago, Mike Judge created “Office Space,” the perfect distillation of the nine to five ennui that can sometimes veer into the surreal, all borne out of being trapped in a cubicle for most of the day. It was an unglamorous era for the humble programmer, before the excesses of the following decade set in.
Years later, Judge returned to a similar theme after the successes of his following projects with the HBO series “Silicon Valley.” The bleak dystopia is (seemingly) flipped on its head in the show’s titular location, with the bleak gray interiors of Initech replaced by the colorful, open office layouts, all-you-can-eat lunches of Hooli. Characters like Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch, “Tag”) are trying to escape their jobs not out of extreme boredom, but rather the possibility of becoming the next iterations of the CEOs of the companies they work at. “Passion” and “energy” become the buzzwords of the day, with the “worthy” deservedly capturing the fruits that capitalism can endow.
Reading between the lines, however, one can come to realize that the world portrayed by “Silicon Valley” is its own type of dystopia, with the real-life effects of the real-life equivalents of the personalities of the show becoming a larger part of the national conversation. The brash, uncontainable ego of characters like Hooli CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross, “American Horror Story: Hotel”) are some of the best bits of the series, but when we see some of those elements in the Zuckerbergs and Bezoses of the world that Belson is presumably a caricature of, the consequences are a bit more dire. Or when the cartoonish greed of Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopoulos) is reflected in the Adam Neumanns of the world (who get billion dollar payouts to leave their companies while their employees lose their jobs), the utopianism that many companies, venture capital firms and other cogs of the tech ecosystem try to spread seems more and more like the front to ever-growing grifts.
Yet it is always difficult to not cheer for the protagonists of the series, however flanderized they’ve become. Maybe in their early days, this was itself the attitude towards the now despised Facebooks and Amazons of the world. One of the frustrating parts of the show is that since Pied Piper (the startup in the center of it all) never really passes the startup stage, we never see how the transition into potential global behemoth affects the attitudes and relationships of the characters (a la “The Social Network”).
“Silicon Valley” returns for its sixth and final season this week, and despite the relative downturn in quality of the previous two seasons, it is set up with a lot of promise for a final season to match the high bar set by its first few. Even between when it started five years ago and now, perceptions within and without “The Valley” about the societal impact (mostly negative ones) and responsibilities of the behemoths in the Bay Area have changed drastically, and the quirks of the characters that made them so endearing are not as funny anymore. There is a lot of room to explore these ideas as well as analyze the changing landscape in the tech world with the trademark wit and precision which Judge has shown time and time again.