'Silicon Valley' Season 4: TV Review

The hilarious HBO series returns just in time to make the world better while the characters mess up their own lives even more.
Every time Silicon Valley returns to television, the world becomes more tolerable. Sure, just for about a half-hour (well, fine, an hour, because there's Veep, too), but it's pretty amazing. This is an easily proven fact, but it's going to distract from more nice things that need to be said about the show, so let's just move on.

But remember – it's true.  On Sunday at 10 p.m., whatever catastrophe of awfulness you're dealing with will ease up.

Onward.

One of the elements most easily overlooked about Silicon Valley is that the construction of the seasons are little puzzles of magnificence. Yes, there are the laughs and the character development and then more of the laughs and then some of the visual jokes and callbacks to previous jokes in previous seasons – those are all wonderful and sustain loyal viewers. But it's easy to forget that the carefully orchestrated seasons hum along in ways that are clever, even if, just like the stories that originate from the real Silicon Valley, they sometime seem ridiculous or unbelievable.

Let's be honest – constructing a passable plot that allows the jokes to spew from the Silicon Valley cast would be just fine. At the end of the season, if things were kind of a shambles of connected plots and maybe lacked some payoff, would anyone care? Just have the cast work on something, have them marinate in each other's presence and whatever happens is good enough.

OK, fine, I might be alone there. But part of what makes any series work for more than two seasons is the fact that you want to hang out with the cast, through the screen, in your apartment or house or some Airbnb you might be borrowing. The job of a comedy is to make you laugh first and foremost and, yes, if it wants to be elevated in whatever historical critical analysis that comes later, it should move forward and tell interesting stories. But killer plotting is not the killer app of a comedy. The humor is. That both Silicon Valley and stablemate Veep are pretty exceptional at storytelling on top of all the laughs is a bonus. And I'd be fine just watching Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) sit in the living room and annoy each other while Erlich (T.J. Miller) yells out for Jian Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) and Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and Jared (Zach Woods) nerd out about something.

I'm a simple person that way when it comes to Silicon Valley. Fine, I also wanted bigger plotlines for Monica (Amanda Crew) because I have a crush on Amanda Crew. And I've already said that any time the series can get more screen time for Suzanne Cryer as Laurie then it's a bonus, because Cryer is fantastic and it's clear the writers like the simplicity of Laurie's inability to connect to human emotions, which is never not funny.

But the point here is just give them some jokes and I'll be fine. But no, season after season Silicon Valley manages to create (with the fine guidance of Mike Judge and Alec Berg) storylines that are absurdly believable and compelling to anyone who has ever heard even one story of what happens in Silicon Valley.

In season four, which starts Sunday, Silicon Valley attempts perhaps its trickiest plotline ever, which I won't spoil but I found clever and weirdly ambitious at the same time.

What's clear in the first three episodes is that the core group can still get enough jokes and a direction (or three) that will sustain viewers who need to see them in action (arguing, messing something up, being high, not sleeping, etc.) while the writers continue to extend enough lines out to periphery players, deepening their development. For example, there are excellent jokes for Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopoulos); a budding rivalry between corporate cop/spy Hoover (Chris Williams) and Denpok (Bernard White), who plays Hooli's Spiritual Advisor to Gavin Belson (Matt Ross); another appearance from Andrew Daly as Richard's doctor; and the hilarious return of disgraced lawyer Pete Monahan (Matt McCoy).

That's impressive because even though we only see bits of these characters, they are embedded and funny and necessary, and I say that still wanting more work for Crew, and not because I have a crush on her, while also believing the increased representation of female programmers would be wise — though that might happen given that Dinesh actually meets a female hacker (they bond over their dislike of Gilfoyle), which allows Dinesh to say out loud and triumphantly, "I did sex on her."

So who knows what transpires going forward. The plot is, as mentioned, intriguingly lofty and the jokes are still ever-present. "I've always been very adept at taking whatever shape of the shoe pressing down on me," Jared says in one scene, cementing the fact he's maybe the stealthiest laugh on the show ("First of all, everyone reads the terms of service and second of all...").

Pick a character – the laughs are there. Maybe this season we should give more credit to the intricate plotting. But no matter your preference, Silicon Valley is back and the world has once again been made right, at least for the moment.

Courtesy of HBO


Silicon Valley’s Secret

Dinner at Meredith Ackley’s house is like stepping into a dream. The walls are painted pink and purple. There’s a heated patio and arching branches over the backyard. The sun beams through the windows, music plays and three beautiful girls dance with their mother in the kitchen.

The missing piece of the fairytale is Ackley’s husband, Eric Salvatierra. It’s been four years since he called to say his last “I love you.”

In 2012, Salvatierra stepped in front of a Caltrain, abruptly ending his life. He was 39 years old.

Salvatierra was an executive who helped build eBay from the ground up. He was the former CFO of Skype, a VP at PayPal, and always one of the smartest in the room, according to his colleagues.

“They would say he could write an Excel spreadsheet like a symphony,” Ackley said. “He was one of those people who could go all the way up and go all the way down into the details.”

Salvatierra would stay up all night coding and occasionally writing his wife love poems. The moments of brilliance when he did his best work -- and channeled extraordinary passion -- turned out to be manic episodes. They were symptoms of Salvatierra’s ultimate struggle: a crippling battle with bipolar disorder and depression.
According to the CDC, one in four people suffer from mental health issues. Scratch the surface in Silicon Valley, and the seemingly open-minded mecca is not necessarily welcoming to them.

In 2016, a study by psychiatrist Dr. Michael Freeman identified the relationship between entrepreneurship and depression. It found that many of the personality traits found in entrepreneurs -- creativity, extroversion, open mindedness and a propensity for risk -- are also traits associated with ADHD, bipolar spectrum conditions, depression and substance abuse.

Ackley’s husband had some of these traits. When Salvatierra was “on,” he was unstoppable, she said.
“I think Eric's managers saw that his brain operated differently than other people and they could use that to their advantage to help the company,” Ackley recalled. “And I just kind of accepted that as part of his work culture, not part of him.”

It wasn’t until her husband was hospitalized and diagnosed as bipolar in 2011 that the reality sunk in. He was battling mental illness.

His bipolar disorder gave him extreme highs manifested in wild bouts of creativity, and incredibly low lows -- he would be paralyzed by feeling like he’d made a mistake and couldn’t forgive himself.

“He would ruminate on these for months,” Ackley said.

While Salvatierra was hospitalized, the couple went to a psychiatrist who advised them to keep it secret.
“I thought I was going to throw up. I thought Eric was going to just disintegrate,” Ackley remembers. “It was instant shame on both of us ... She was like, ‘You don’t want to show weakness; you don’t want to show that your brain is anything but 100%.’”

In Silicon Valley, where your biggest asset is your brain, the stigma is magnified, according to Penelope Draganic, whose husband Zarko also struggled from depression and ended his life. Like Salvatierra, Zarko was lauded for his all-night coding sessions, which were a byproduct of his battle with depression. He was a Silicon Valley success story: Along with other tech titans, he worked at mobile device company General Magic in the early '90s and later founded a startup he sold for millions.

“He slept in a bed in his office, would roll off the bed and write code throughout the night," Draganic says. "They loved his perseverance and his resilience. He was able to perform superhuman tasks because he was biochemically off-kilter, and he wasn't even aware of it because he managed it so well.”

People viewed Zarko’s confidence and work ethic as a sign of his brilliance, Draganic recalled. But she said the pressure made it difficult to talk openly about his mental health issues.

“It's particularly relevant in the Valley because hypo-manic productivity is a sign of strength and opportunity, and even in your weakest moments you're not supposed to present anything other than your game face,” Draganic said. “It's not the culture that creates the illness, but it's a culture that actually makes this illness even harder to grapple with.”

The fine line between creative genius and mental health can be hard to decipher. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who worked closely with Salvatierra, was blindsided when he died. Whitman personally recruited Salvatierra, who opted not to attend Stanford Business School so he could take a chance on eBay.

“Silicon Valley is a cradle of creative geniuses. And so Eric was not, in some ways, out of the ordinary,” Whitman said. “People had zones of genius, and I just thought, 'OK, this is a really smart, really gifted young guy.'”

Whitman, whose sister struggles with bipolar disorder, says the myth of mental illness is that people are unable to do their jobs.

“Eric was highly functioning. My sister is highly functioning,” she said. “People think, ‘Well, maybe you can’t do the job.’ Actually, it’s often quite the opposite.”

Whitman says tech companies have a responsibility to ensure health plans cover mental health and employees have an open forum to talk about these issues. Now the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Whitman has opened an onsite medical facility for employees.

She’s one of few high-profile CEOs to speak openly about mental health, but a movement is beginning to happen in the Bay Area.

One night in late January, a group of entrepreneurs and investors gathered at a members-only club in San Francisco to talk about mental health.

Robin Williams’ son Zak spoke openly about his father’s struggle with bipolar disorder and the demons he faced. For Zak, speaking about his father’s death will never be easy. But battling his own depression has given him the courage to speak up.

Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley talked about creating a video game to treat depression that’s on the pathway for FDA approval. Dave Morin, an early Facebook employee who also worked at Apple, asked what would happen if you treated depression like a startup, spending millions of dollars and brainpower to solve it. He recently started an organization called Project Sunrise with the goal of finding a cure for depression.

An impromptu branding session happened later in the evening. The effort to destigmatize mental health should start with a better name, someone joked.

To talk so openly about mental health in the Bay Area is a rarity. The event, organized by Bring Change 2 Mind, a nonprofit focused on destigmatizing mental health, was an effort to start the conversation.

The irony is that in this mecca of creativity, all-night coding sessions and promises to change the world, it’s harder than ever to talk about the dark side of that success.

“It’s almost like a badge of honor to show how busy you are,” says entrepreneur Rand Fishkin. “Sleep is not cool, pregnancy, not cool. All these things that normal human beings do and need -- people need families, they need to go to sleep at night, but somehow that is excluded from the acceptable portion of the culture.”

Fishkin, a successful entrepreneur who documented his struggle with depression, says it’s commonplace. He co-hosted a CEO retreat with investor Brad Feld, who has been open about his battle with depression. Founders were asked if they struggled with severe anxiety or clinical depression while running a startup.

“Every single hand in the room went up except two,” Fishkin recalled.

During his struggles, Fishkin visited “CEO coach” Jerry Colonna, who helped him understand that he wasn’t just having a bad day -- he was clinically depressed. Colonna, a former investor who has also struggled with depression, has gained notoriety in the tech community for his ability to cut through a culture that focuses on “crushing it.”

“There’s this dirty little secret in our industry, which is we don’t take care of those people,” says Colonna. “And we’re taking advantage of them, and not treating them.”

He described the startup environment as a perfect storm for people who may struggle with mental health issues.
“Imagine having that personality type, that propensity to drive yourself, and then having investors say, 'You better be hungry, otherwise I’m not going to fund you,’” he says. “You take away sleep, and you’ve got a prescription for depression.”

Colonna says the issue isn't unique to Silicon Valley.

“It would be a mistake to think, ‘Oh, these poor little rich kids,’” he says. “It’s that the tech industry -- and the startup community specifically -- brings to the surface forces that are at play in every aspect of our society.”

Meanwhile, five years after her husband’s death, Ackley breaks down when discussing the worst day of her life.
“All of a sudden, my body went cold and I just knew, I knew in every inch of my body that something had gone absolutely wrong,” she says, choking up. “[Eventually], police officers sat next to me and held me down and said, ‘We have some news to tell you.’ And they told me that Eric had died.”

For years after that day, Ackley would walk into her husband’s closet, where his clothes still hung. She would hug them because they smelled like him. Now she holds a quilt made from her husband’s Silicon Valley uniform -- the pastel shirts and khaki pants fashioned into a patchwork of little squares.

Over dinner, Salvatierra’s daughters remember their father’s sense of humor and his corny jokes (“Can you do me a quick flavor?”). They describe him as camera-in-hand, always ready to record the special moments. There were many of those.

Through Bring Change 2 Mind, the girls have created stigma-free clubs at school where they talk about their father’s struggles.

They speak with youthful openness about the secret that cost their father his life.

“I know why I want to end the stigma,” Lia says. “It’s just this big taboo.”

“It’s not a character defect,” Eva says. “It’s just a disease, like cancer is.”

For Ackley, the hardest part is watching her daughters grow up without their father. It's why she's determined to change the narrative, starting in Silicon Valley.

"He just was in awe of what we created together," Ackley says. "I just miss his heart more than anything. And I really wanted to raise these girls together."


Silicon Valley Comic Con: What worked and what didn’t

Lee Hester of Lee’s Comics in Mountain View has been going to comic book conventions for decades, back when you could easily rub shoulders with legendary artists like Jack Kirby and get an autograph without worrying about paying your rent. And from Hester’s acquired perspective, Silicon Valley Comic Con has been a great experience.

“We’re in the middle of Nerdstock,” Hester said, and he meant that in a good way. “This is the biggest thing ever in San Jose. We’re in the middle of a ‘happening,’ and generally people don’t realize that until it’s over.”
Tens of thousands of people — official attendance numbers weren’t available Sunday afternoon — were part of that “happening” over the weekend in downtown San Jose. And in its sophomore year, Silicon Valley Comic Con organizers — led by co-founders Steve Wozniak and Rick White and CEO Trip Hunter — showed they learned a lot from their first year.

What worked

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: The convention center was overwhelmed by fans last year, especially Saturday when about twice as many people showed up as expected. So organizers made some changes: Registration was moved to the spacious (and shaded) South Hall tent, big-name panels were held at the City National Civic Auditorium across the street from the convention center, and a free outdoor festival was added to further diffuse the crowds.

GRACIOUS GUESTS: Starting with William Shatner on Friday night and going through “The Flash” stars Grant Gustin and Tom Felton, the stars people came to see all came off as approachable and sincere when answering fan questions. Even Gustin, who showed up to the event wearing Los Angeles Dodgers gear, laughingly apologized and switched out his warm-up jersey for a maroon sweatshirt. Marina Sirtis, from the cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” praised the fans in San Jose, saying they were asking smart questions and ones they didn’t usually get at conventions.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS: The outdoor festival — with music, movies, science exhibits and more at Plaza de Cesar Chavez — was a brilliant addition. It gave attendees somewhere to go outside the convention center, and, since it was free, the general public could get the event’s spirit without plunking down for a ticket. The outdoor festival also provided the convention with the food options it was sorely lacking last year. Moveable Feast brought out about 40 food trucks over the weekend, serving up everything from barbecue to Thai food.

ENTERTAINING FOR EVERYBODY: Steve Wozniak said that adding a science component to the convention was a way to make it stand out from the crowd. That was certainly true, with scientists from NASA and SETI in the center of the convention floor, showing off real space rocks and astronomy tools, and a real living legend in Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin drawing more than 2,000 people to the City National Civic.

But just as important was the addition of a kids’ STEAM area on the convention center’s ground floor level, where kids (and their parents) could check out DIY robots, build a box fortress or — thanks to the San Jose Public Library — create their own button using comic book pages. There was even a display of “old tech,” with rotary phones, vintage computers like the Apple II and the Macintosh Plus, and a few typewriters. And speaking of vintage, the collection of pinball machines and video games — free to play, thanks to South Bay Button Mashers — was a great way to blow an hour without using all your quarters.

What didn’t work

WHERE AM I?: For a convention in the heart of Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley Comic Con suffered from some tough glitches. The program guide didn’t include a schedule, so attendees had to use the website or download the mobile app to figure where and when everything was happening. There were also abrupt schedule changes, par for the course for any convention, but it was difficult to find out about them unless you were wired in.

CONVENTION CENTER BLUES: For the second year in a row, an elevator at the Convention Center broke down — and this time it stranded a group of “Star Wars” cosplayers in the elevator Sunday as they waited for techs to free them. That’s not really on Silicon Valley Comic Con, but it’s the kind of thing that makes participants wonder about the facility.

And while the spread-out nature of the convention helped keep lines separated and crowds reasonable, I overheard some vendors on the convention floor complaining that having the big-ticket items — like celebrity photo ops and panels — farther away also was drawing away the potential customer base.

But Silicon Valley Comic Con has a chance to fix its problems and build on its successes when it returns next year, April 6-8, 2018.

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