The first season of HBO's Silicon Valley had a recurring structure from episode to episode — series protagonist Richard, CEO of tiny startup Pied Piper, would be strung along from excitement to crashing reality to mundane resolution, followed by a blindsiding setback at the hands of archrival megacorp Hooli, or, well, the whole world, really.
Silicon Valley's first eight episodes explored this with enough variety to squeak out from under a feeling of sameness — there was just enough time for big triumphs to be undercut by disaster a few times before the big Techcrunch Disrupt triumph set Richard and co up for big things, and even bigger challenges. It all felt fresh, narratively speaking. But a few episodes into season two, which starts this Sunday night after the premiere of Game of Thrones, there's a new sense of déjà vu kicking in.
First, let's briefly recap season one: former Hooli employee Richard has, in his quest to create a new music recommendation app, inadvertently revolutionized data compression and sparks a tech industry cold war as investors try to woo him, Hooli tries to reverse engineer his tech, and Richard tries to figure out how to make his program, Pied Piper, into ... well, he's not quite sure yet.
With season two, it's not that series creator Mike Judge and Silicon Valley's writing staff are slipping with the funny. I'd argue the opposite, in fact. So far Silicon Valley is nailing its jokes more consistently than it did last season. The cast really seems to have found their characters, who feel like more than just one note reads on the tech world cliches they were invented to mock. There's conflict brewing within Pied Piper as Dinesh and Guilfoyle jockey for position within the company, and even hilariously pushed-around Jared finds a dissenting voice at a key moment early on that, if anything, makes him more earnest. Erlich is even more vulgar, but a method is appearing in his madness.
His balls also find their way onto a conference table, but hey, two steps forward, etc etc.
I think right now, this is the biggest shift so far in Silicon Valley's second season — the characterization, I mean, not the balls. The Piper staff feel more like a complicated unit, who have relationships beyond the antagonism and cruelty from last season. They're not always getting along so far, but they complement each other — even Erlich and Jared have a couple of important moments after the shallow, one-sided emotional abuse that defined their rapport last season.
Silicon Valley is also finding a broader voice elsewhere. So far women seem to exist in a more important capacity, and Suzanne Cryer joins the cast as Laurie Bream, the new head of Raviga, the venture capital fund that seeded Pied Piper in season one.
Bream replaces former Raviga chief Peter Gregory, as played by Christopher Evan Welch. Welch was a standout as the muttering genius angel investor Gregory, a bizarre dual role that saw the character serve as both a sharp jab at horror stories of venture capitalist demeanor and behavior, and also an aspirational mentor figure. But Welch died of cancer in late 2013, leaving a void that Cryer is going to have to work hard to fill. She's doing an admirable job so far — she's channeling some of the same detached unpredictability that Welch did as Gregory, but she's putting her own distinctive spin on it — but Welch was an anchor for both the Pied Piper crew and Matt Ross's Gavin Belson, who represents the out-of-touch, inhumanly disconnected and oblivious CEO of Valleywag's wildest fantasies.
Belson is only more than a caricature because of the rivalry Gregory provided, and because of their mysterious past together. So far the only development for Belson in season two is a growing shrillness, as he becomes increasingly fixated on beating Pied Piper to market. But then, that's how he spent the first season, too. And that brings me back to my initial point — that after season one's eight episode run and the first three episodes of season two, a sense of déjà vu is creeping over the show.
Silicon Valley has made Richard and the rest of Pied Piper largely sympathetic counterparts to the frustrating excesses and rapaciousness of its world, but I can sense my own impending fatigue at watching them go through the same telegraphed cycle of hope and interrupted success over and over.
Just taking admittedly well-deserved shots at the tech world elite is fun and all, but it's not enough to keep Silicon Valley sharp. The show is on the precipice of finding itself — it's set its stage, and Judge and his writing team know their characters now, how they would act, and it's all working. But even as the pendulum swing between success and obstacles goes back and forth, there's a greater importance than ever that its center point move away from its default position a bit more.