The Peter principle was born in ’60s corporate America, but it’s not relegated to stuffy old workplaces—we basically see it in action every time a new series or film turns out to be a hit. Whether they’re in Hollywood or on Wall Street, executives can’t help but try to wring as much value out of any and every good idea, even in the face of diminishing returns. A merely respectable performance can bolster enough confidence to nab a promotion or renewal order. But at some point, the rising star is simply not up to the task at the next level. The principle dictates that our incompetence or lack of suitability will be revealed, and the cycle will start all over again for someone or something else.
That management concept plays out at the micro level—especially in the case of Nelson Bighetti, though it’s arguable that he’ll ever get his comeuppance—and macro on HBO’s Silicon Valley. Now, watching it propel the fictional Hooli and Pied Piper engineers obviously inspires nowhere near the same amount of chagrin and schadenfreude, but it is part of what drives Mike Judge’s series. The first season was a hit, which necessitated a second season, which introduced even more obscenities and absurdity—mostly at the hands of Russ “Tres Commas” Hanneman—which, in turn, led to a third season that somehow managed to fail upwards even harder. At this point, the laughs and disappointments (for the characters) are reliable. We know what we’re getting each season: hilarious disasters, ingenious visual gags, and dick jokes of Mark Twain levels of pithiness or Faulkner-esque virtuosity, the latter of which make up Silicon Valley’s own “Peter” principle. And, not to clutter this up with too many business terms, the demand is there, so Judge and showrunner Alec Berg might as well keep supplying it.
But nothing lasts forever, least of all in the real Silicon Valley, so is this the year that Silicon Valley fails to perform? We’ve watched Richard (Thomas Middleditch) repeatedly rally the Pied Piper team and, apropos of the name, lead them to ruin. The scrappy startup has defied probability time and again even as they’ve adhered to the Peter principle: two steps forward, followed by a couple of lateral moves that skirt the edge of the precipice without ever falling over. So have the intermittent successes and inevitable defeats, which still have few real lasting consequences, worn thin?
The first three episodes of the season quickly raise those concerns and allay them; they head off any fears that this show is moving from satire into pure farce. Silicon Valley still offers plenty of what viewers tune in for—takedowns of corporate raiders and VC bros, breakdown opportunities for Richard, and Gilfoyle and Dinesh’s (Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani, respectively) programmer bromance for the ages. And of course, Jared (Zach Woods) continues to act, however inadvisably, as the heart of a company that once featured fellatio in its logo. But the success-failure ratio remains on par with previous seasons, even as the Pied Piper team falls in line behind a new product: the revolutionary video chat spearheaded by Dinesh and his lust.
Most of the group is happy to have a viable product, especially after Richard’s algorithm failed to set the world on fire in its purest form, while the most soulless iteration is poised to make billions for their Hooli nemesis, including “Action” Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky). But Richard has taken to practically chewing his fingers to nubs rather than help get PiperChat off the ground, though he does take part in an inspired, ultimately thwarted “heist.” When no one else will join his efforts to find a more meaningful purpose for his algorithm, Richard strikes out on his own once more.
As familiar as this all sounds, the déjà vu won’t last for viewers; the writers have too refined an approach for any of this to come across as a mere echo of previous arcs. There are familiar beats and even sights—including the return of a certain disgraced solicitor—but there are also undeniable changes. Richard’s never been one to compromise on his vision, but it’s more obvious than ever that his purist sensibilities are couching professional jealousy. Jared, who last season asked Richard not to use his faith against him, remains steadfast, but he’s also setting boundaries in between telling stories of his sad upbringing. Even the marvelous windbag that is Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) loses some of the stiffness in his sails thanks to the only Bighetti with any common sense. But he can still be relied upon to provide the kind of phallocentric wordplay that will be parsed out in many a watercooler conversation.
And while we do have our underdogs back, they’ve now made room in their ranks for Monica (Amanda Crew). The Raviga employee’s fortune has been tied to Pied Piper from the beginning, but in season four, her personal stakes are higher than ever. Rather than merely advise and hope for the best, she’s taking matters (and pranks) into her own hands. It’s a small adjustment, but one that creates great new possibilities for the show. Monica’s been somewhat underserved throughout, and watching her circumvent steps she would have been a stickler for in the past is beyond refreshing.
Once again, the power plays are fast and furious, the reversals of fortune swift enough to catch even the non-Big Heads among them off guard. It can get a bit overwhelming in the first third of the season, but all the maneuvering is setting up what could be an incredibly satisfying payoff. And unlike poor, clueless Nelson, none of it will have happened by accident—this is what Silicon Valley does. It’s not luck, or even the Peter principle in effect anymore. In the (early) words of Gilfoyle: “It’s not magic, it’s talent and sweat.”
Created by: Mike Judge, John Altschuler, Dave Krinsky
Starring: Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Amanda Crew, Zach Woods, Matt Ross, Josh Brener, Stephen Tobolowsky
Returns: Sunday, April 23 at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on HBO
Format: Half-hour single-camera comedy
Three season-four episodes watched for review
Once again, reviews by Les Chappell will run weekly.