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‘Silicon Valley’ Review: Zach Woods Is Extraordinary, But Season 5 Can’t Keep Up With Him

HBO's Emmy-winning tech comedy needs an update.

Silicon Valley Season 5 Zach Woods, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, Thomas Middleditch

Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO

This year’s poster for “Silicon Valley” Season 5 is appropriately prescient, but not in the intended fashion. Showing a loading icon with a blurred show title in the background, the tagline says, “The future is now.” You can barely make out the message through the buffering sheen, but that’s more than can be said for the first three episodes of Season 5. “Silicon Valley” is more like the icon than what’s behind it: It’s stuck in a loop, spinning its wheels.

When it comes to character development — or any form of measurable progress, really —”Silicon Valley” has always specialized in kicking the can down the road. Mike Judge’s HBO comedy can create chaos with the best of them, as the Pied Piper crew builds and extinguishes fires throughout the boom or bust tech industry with delightful frequency. And, to be fair, part of the reason so much madness follows these four men is because they’re trapped in arrested development; their financial success far surpasses their maturation, which can lead to a lot of adolescent tiffs that play out on a disproportionately large scale.

Last season’s biggest arc was when Richard (Thomas Middleditch) became fed up with playing the timid, nice guy and became corrupted by his quest for success. But by the time the finale wrapped up, he was back to normal, and in Season 5 he’s struggling with the same issues that have always plagued him: Can he become a leader that inspires? Can he run a successful company? Can he maintain eye contact and wear button-downs without hoodies?

Silicon Valley Season 5 Kumail Nanjiani

Some of these questions are still compelling — seriously, Richard, if you retire the straggly white strings attached to that 2010 Urban Outfitters hoodie, I will, too — but a lot of what’s happening in Season 5 feels like old hat. The Pied Piper gang moves into a new office. Richard struggles to hire new coders, this time because of Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh’s (Kumail Nanjiani) high standards. Those two crazy cats are still at each other’s throats, and Jared (Zach Woods) remains the ever-loyal employee who may be the only adult of the group. (He also gets most of the best lines, a nod to the writers recognizing Woods’ talent and the obvious fun they have building out Jared’s mythos.)

Of course, there is one big change to the new season: Erlich Bachman is gone. Actor T.J. Miller left the series in rather tumultuous, bridge-burning fashion, and his character’s exit is handled without much hubbub. In a move of equal measures vengeance and convenience, Erlich’s archenemy Jian Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) slides into his role as the greedy disruptor. Not much more can be said without spoiling, but Yang (both the character and the actor) is good for about the same number of laughs and carries a B or C-plot just as well.

So it’s kind of a wash, and about the same can be said for the new year. If there’s a point to be made about the first three episodes, aside from “This is pretty much the same show it’s always been,” it’s that it’s too much of the same show. “Silicon Valley” used to feel aggressive and edgy. It has plenty to say about the state of tech and the people populating the business. Now, it seems happy to go through the motions rather than reach for new talking points. Privacy concerns are running rampant, but Episode 3, “Chief Operating Officer,” treats a similar scandal as another small fire to extinguish before moving on to a “bigger” one. Despite episodes about hiring practices, there’s no comment on the #MeToo movement or women in the workplace.

At one point, a potential new hire walks into the Pied Piper office and, looking over the workforce, says, “Nice gender mix, could use a little more color — baby steps, right?” It’s politely meta, nodding to the industry’s issues as well as the show’s, but that’s as engaged as “Silicon Valley” wants to get. And for a show that broke out by taking big leaps, these baby steps are comfortable but frustrating. Perhaps Mike Judge’s comedy will get to bigger topics later (or, you know, push its characters to new emotional depths), but nearly a third of the way through the season, it’s just buffering.

Grade: B-

“Silicon Valley” Season 5 premieres Sunday, March 25 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.

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