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How ‘Silicon Valley’ Relied on Story Pivots to Keep Up With Changing Tech World

When HBO’s “Silicon Valley” returns for its sixth and final season, the Pied Piper gang will be pivoting one last time to tackle emerging privacy issues, a new internet and some degree of actual success for its perpetually stumbling underdogs.

Which is exactly why it was time to wrap the series with its final seven episodes.

“If the Bad News Bears win the championship, they’re not the Bad News Bears anymore,” says executive producer Alec Berg. “They’re just the Bears. This is a show about people with aspirations. If they achieve their goals, it always felt like the show would stagnate.”

That satirical push-and-pull of knocking on the door of high-tech success, but never succeeding completely has been a consistent challenge. From the series-defining first season finale, in which Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) unlocks the key to his data-compression system while his cohorts argue over how to concurrently “jerk-off” the maximum number of guys, Pied Piper as a start-up “pivoted” from a music app to a universal data-compression system, to a top-notch video chat, to an entire new internet.

“They were out of pivots,” Berg says. “We needed to pick a stool and sit on it. If they abandoned this and moved onto something else, viewers were going to go, ‘All right, I’m done.’ Once we came up with this new internet thing, that was the horse we were going to ride until the end.”

That posed fresh challenges in the final season, including not turning the show into a workplace comedy; writers avoided tropes where possible and leaned into the tech that has always been at the core of the show instead. It’s something that has helped “Silicon Valley” catch fire among those being satirized, creating enthusiastic fans including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

“I wanted to have the street credit of the tech world first,” co-creator Mike Judge says, noting there have been handfuls of consultants over the years. “We’ve gotten pretty close. If we’re one micrometer off, they just blast us.”

“It is by far the hardest show I’ve ever worked on, writing-wise, because of the technical stuff. I’ve never worked on a comedy where I could write stuff that was just wrong,” adds Berg. “The more we dug into the real tech world, the better things got. We’ve gotten so many storylines from going into that world.”

Six or seven years ago, the public perception of such entities as Google or Facebook was more awestruck than wary; elections hadn’t been potentially rigged by foreign countries with internet access; and posting pictures or ordering food online came with fewer data-sharing concerns.

“When we started, everyone in the tech industry was kind of strutting around like, ‘You’re welcome. We solved it.’ And now I’ve heard stories of people who are embarrassed to say they work for tech companies because there’s such a stigma about it now,” says Berg.

“In the beginning of the show it was more about that self-aggrandizement, that performative altruism and the excesses. The goofy bikes on the Google campus or the ping pong tables and that dopey culture of tech,” says Zach Woods, who plays Jared on the show. “But over the life of the show, the terrifying moral questions about tech and its impact on society emerged in the world. The show responds to that in this final season and has a take on that.”

Not that the show Judge initially conceptualized more than six years ago looked anything like its current iteration. Much like Pied Piper, “Silicon Valley” as a series was forced to pivot over the years.

“We talked about how much the world has changed since we started the show, and needing to acknowledge that,” says Amy Gravitt, executive vice president, HBO programming. “Alec and Mike have found a way to do that, while still honoring the characters and the company they created six years ago.”

The initial pilot contained an entire B-story in which two women moved to the Bay Area to hopefully date the next Steve Jobs. When Berg boarded, he and Judge honed in on the programmer side of things, anchoring the show with two opposing characters depicting Silicon Valley success: the aspirational genius, in the form of Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), and the muscly showboat that was encapsulated by Hooli head Gavin Belson (Matt Ross).

“The story was so drastically different,” recalls Martin Starr, who plays Gilfoyle. “That initial pilot had a completely different focus from what our show has become. Luckily, people saw the value in focusing on these weird guys in this world that people are fairly unfamiliar with, and yet is so intensely a part of everyone’s daily lives.”

But that wasn’t without its own challenges. “We were doing this show about people who, what they do every day is basically unfilmable; they’re sitting there programming,” Judge says. “You have to find interesting ways to take something that’s about corporate, business and tech moves, and make it personal and emotional.”

It became plenty emotional. Welch died in 2013 from lung cancer complications, months before the first season premiered. Then in 2017 T.J. Miller, who played larger-than-life Erlich Bachman, exited the show, burning bridges with co-stars and writers in subsequent interviews. Allegations of Miller’s inappropriate behavior on set followed.

“Christopher dying massively changed the landscape of the show. Who knows what it would have been if Chris were around,” Berg says. “We built the death of Peter Gregory into the story and then we moved on, and we did the same thing with T.J. He left, and we got story out of how the character was gone and we moved on. In a weird way you could argue having those left turns challenged us and the show turned in interesting ways because we had to find interesting ways to compensate.”

Like its characters, the show, too, had to find ways to pivot the storytelling, beefing up Josh Brener, Amanda Crew and Jimmy O. Yang’s roles, for example. The industry responded well. First receiving an Emmy nomination for comedy series in 2014 (among four other noms that year), “Silicon Valley” went on to secure four more consecutive nominations in that coveted category alone — one every year the show was eligible — and will now be eligible one last time for its final season. It has also picked up two Golden Globe noms for comedy series along the way.

Whether Pied Piper walks away fully compensated for its journey is a story for the finale to tell, but the effects of the show on the world of comedy are bound to resonate long after it signs off.

“They absolutely nailed it,” Middleditch says. “This show has always been about finding what it is about this weird world of technology in Silicon Valley and churning it through this funny but also very tense story. These writers deserve incredible praise. They won’t get it from me, obviously, but they deserve it. The most I’ll ever give is a cold stare as I slowly claw the nearest chalkboard.”

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