‘Silicon Valley’ Season 3: Revenge of the Nerds

Silicon Valley’s Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) may be the smartest guy in the room, but he’s not the most valuable. The HBO comedy about Bay Area coders is all about that paradox: it turns its gaze on engineers who spend their days in front of a screen in subterranean windowless cubbies, the people who make our gadgets — i.e., our entire world — work. They are holding up our lives on their hunched shoulders. In its third season, Silicon Valley imagines what might happen if these humble stokers attempted to steer the ship.

Sunday’s Season 3 premiere begins right where the last season left off, when Richard was ousted as the CEO of his startup, Pied Piper (the name isn’t any less funny three seasons in). With the help of his team of socially inept programmers, he’s invented a super-fast compression algorithm that has seemingly infinite applications, but that set of skills doesn’t qualify him to run a business. As venture capitalist Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer) explains in her trademark robot-on-the-verge-of-a-malfunction tone, “You have created a company that is too valuable for you to run.”

The new season raises the stakes: now that Pied Piper is a legitimate business, Richard and his pals have to fend off foes from within the company and without. They’re painted as hapless losers despite their obvious smarts, especially entrepreneur Erlich (the insanely funny T.J. Miller), who runs the live-in incubator that gave birth to Pied Piper and who’s particularly obsolete now that they have real offices. But the guys have a lofty goal: to protect their intellectual property, the product of sweat and toil and good intentions.

At first, Richard turns down her offer of Chief Technology Officer (CTO), indignant at the thought of being demoted from his own company. But when he lands at a startup that creates 3D holographic moustaches, he realizes he’s made a mistake. Laurie — whose firm, Raviga, has funded Pied Piper to the tune of $5 million, with a $50 million valuation — has already installed veteran CEO “Action Jack” Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky, a welcome new addition to the ensemble) at the helm of the company. When Jack tells Richard he won’t take the job without him as CTO, Richard gives in and crawls back to Pied Piper.

But now Richard and his team have sales staff to contend with, setting up a clash of visions between their idealism and the tech industry’s faceless opportunism. At the company’s cushy new office, which includes a pool table and an in-house chef ready to prepare custom-made meals in the “micro-kitchen,” Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) spies a group of sales staff and immediately deduces, “These people are not in the engineering gene pool.” In a meeting, Richard struggles to translate the concept of his algorithm to the salespeople. “When you say people, you mean companies, right?” one woman asks.

Richard and his team envisioned Pied Piper as a consumer-facing model, like DropBox — individuals can use it for free, and businesses can pay for premium services. But Jack and the sales team want to sell Pied Piper directly to businesses. Jack represents a banal sort of evil: he’s not a bad guy, but his job is to listen to both the sales team and the engineers. He’s not there to make revolutionary, life-changing technology. He’s there to make money.

In a passionate speech in the second episode, Richard describes what his compression algorithm could do if it were put to correct use. “People with nothing could suddenly have everything!” he cries. Silicon Valley exposes the tech industry’s shameful waste of resources, like offices with personal chefs and fridges stocked with expensive coconut water. But the most shameful waste of all is the misuse of talent like Richard’s. Critics have long complained that the real Silicon Valley throws too much money at “innovations” that favor the rich, relatively minor conveniences that ignore the world’s more pressing problems. Silicon Valley asks us to root for brains over brawn, for the lone idealist in a world of compromise.

It would be misleading to assume that pop culture has gotten cleverer as “nerd culture” has taken over the mainstream. Sure, it’s harder to make fun of your friends for reading fantasy novels and comic books, and that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t mean our culture is necessarily smarter than it was when those things were considered the realm of basement-dwelling geeks.

Silicon Valley takes “nerd culture” beyond the scope of popular entertainment. It shines a light on the smartest guy in the room, the one we usually only hear on the other end of a phone call to IT. The mainstream popularity of Game of Thrones and Star Wars may have been wins for nerd culture, but Silicon Valley is a win for nerds.