I almost didn’t want to do this for “Silicon Valley” since all the seasons are pretty close together in quality (even the “worst” one is only a B- grade). Most likely, if you enjoyed any of the seasons, you’ll want to watch all the way through–as the real reason to stop will be repetition more than diminished quality.
The “Worst” Season: Season 5…There’s absolutely nothing fatally wrong with this season–it’s just the first one without T.J. Miller’s incomparable Ehrlich Bachman, and it doesn’t have the series-ending momentum of season 6. At the time, HBO hadn’t announced that season 6 would be the finale, so 5 begins to feel like a long, slow slog towards the same plots repeating themselves without Ehrlich.
Again, there is nothing bad about this season, only that it begins to feel like we’ve seen it all before–and potentially interesting subplots involving artificial intelligence and cryptocurrency don’t really yield results. It all feels a little “one step forward, one step back” as the gang is (once again) fighting Gavin Nelson and Laurie Bream to hold onto their company or keep it afloat. The best subplot is Jin-Yang’s shameless theft of IP as he goes to work on a Chinese version of Pied Piper. Tackling China’s rip-off culture may be the only thing that feels truly fresh here. Grade for season: B- [And that’s completely normal for the penultimate season of a six season series to be the worst–“The Americans,” “The Sopranos”–as creators begin to realize they’re running out of narrative steam and fresh ideas to explore.]
Season 2…This season is neither the end nor the beginning, and doesn’t have the truly interesting plot developments of 3 and 4. It also suffers from the unexpected death of Christopher Evan Welch (the actor who played the important character of Peter Gregory), which probably had this season changing several plot-lines at the last minute and likely the overall arc of the series. That’s especially a problem as this season goes from season 1’s 8 episodes to 10 episodes here, and they can feel a little padded. The most interesting development happens at the very end of the second season–with Gregory’s successor Laurie Bream firing Richard Hendricks as CEO. The best subplot is the introduction of Russ Hanneman, a maniac billionaire who is clearly based on Marc Cuban. Grade for season: B
Note: the rest of the seasons from this point are pretty much interchangeable in quality, and there’s only the most fractional enjoyment separating them really.
Season 3…Richard’s firing as CEO mirrors what always seems to happen when business people get the power to fire the more technically proficient person that started the company in the first place. “Action” Jack Barker is the VC’s idea of a good CEO…even though he doesn’t seem to understand tech at all, and almost bankrupts the company before quickly leaving, failing upwards to eventually become Hooli’s CEO (as their own business board decides). From Ehrlich’s hilarious squandering of money as a newly-flush VC to Pied Piper eventually pivoting to a spectacular (but unimaginative) video chat app that Richard can’t stand, this is a season that really moves. The best subplot involves one that doesn’t happen as Richard and the gang make an elaborate “skunk works” plan inside the hijacked Pied Piper, and Richard (spectacularly) screws it up almost immediately. It’s a hilarious, jolting development in a series that isn’t taking its audience for granted. Grade for season: A-
Season 6…The final season moves at a breakneck pace (it has only 7 episodes, the fewest of any season) and scores big with critiques of tech ethics, growing data monopolies, ludicrous Burning Man-type events, horrible HR “grading” systems that make basic interactions feel like high-pressure performance evaluations, and artificial intelligence. Even Dinesh’s feud with insufferable subordinate Gabe works as a send-up of any office culture. The best subplot may be Richard creating the data miner of his nightmares, as Pied Piper’s new system could be used to spy and blackmail people in record time–to the interest of a deep-pocketed, horrible Chilean businessman (the son of a dictator who wants to mine data like his family mined metals). And after so many years of struggling, it’s interesting to see what a truly successful Pied Piper looks like. The only drawback may be a series finale that viewers could find a little unsatisfying, and too much time devoted to the eternal Hendricks/Belson feud. Grade for season: A
Season 1…The season that started it all and introduced us to our core group. Things are invented here (like Richard’s “Middle Out” algorithm) that would be referenced in almost every episode of later seasons. And the thwarted friendship of tech-titans Peter Gregory and Gavin Belson was something that could’ve been fascinating in later seasons. By introducing us to the inner world of mysterious tech people who are shaping everything, yet we know surprisingly little about–this sets us up for a killer, inventive series that would easily become one of HBO’s best comedies of the 2010’s. The best subplot isn’t really a “plot” but a hilariously elaborate, extended joke in the season 1 finale about penises. This is what happens when geniuses make a dick joke. Grade for season: A
The “Best” Season: Season 4...Others may disagree that this is the best (again, you could easily pick 1, 6, or 3 and make just as strong an argument), but I loved it for many reasons…
–It’s the first to introduce the second-half of the series’s grand idea (a peer-to-peer, firewall-less internet that doesn’t data mine and can’t be shut off by authoritarian governments) and at a time when net neutrality was being heavily debated–that was particularly interesting.
–Gavin Belson gets ousted from Hooli (him finding out the video chat he bought from Pied Piper is a haven for pedophiles and banging on the two-way mirror is still one of the series’s funniest moments) and actually partners up with Richard. We find out more about the series’s peculiar main “villain” (who gets injected with the blood of younger people) in his most sympathetic season…by far.
–It’s the last to feature Ehrlich Bachman (and subtle critiques of Virtual Reality-fever as he partners with an unscrupulous VR engineer), and the sheer volcanic momentum he brings to the series.
–Jack Barker’s ruthless riding of Chinese plant workers (and their subsequent revenge) is another comedic highlight of the series.
By being one of the funniest, most inventive, best plotted seasons of the series and adding new layers to previously despicable characters–this is my favorite season. The best subplot if I had to pick just one, it would be Dinesh’s hilarious ego-trip as Pied Piper’s new CEO, tasting success for the first time, it completely goes to his overly-gelled head in a ripe send-up of the Valley’s “CEO as Genius Visionary” Syndrome. Equally funny is his quick sell-off of the Trojan horse Pied Piper software to Gavin (who only thinks he’s being the predator in the scene). Grade for Season: A