It's a sunny summer morning on the set of the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, and creator Mike Judge is sitting behind two monitors, still hunched over laughing after four takes. Jared Dunn, earnest, adoring cheerleader to his nerdy boss, Richard Hendricks, has grown unhappy with Richard and is expressing it in a very un-Jared-like way. It's a risky scene, Judge says, because the show has never pushed the noble, perpetually optimistic Jared into such desperate action.
"I was really nervous that wasn't going to work, so that might have been a lot of laughing out of relief," Judge tells me later. Spoiler alert: It worked.
The scene appears in episode 2 of the sixth and final season of the Emmy-winning show about computer geeks trying to make it in Silicon Valley. As the seven-episode season kicks off, startup Pied Piper has hundreds of employees and giant, multilevel digs. The company's peer-to-peer internet "of the people, by the people and for the people" is now so influential that Richard (Thomas Middleditch) is testifying before Congress about the security of user data, unmistakably channeling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's jittery Capitol Hill performance.
But while the road to this auspicious juncture has been paved with speed bumps -- a copyright infringement lawsuit, scheming corporate overlords and smarmy investors in flashy sports cars -- success brings fresh challenges. Like a ramped-up battle between personal integrity and the lure of big money. And higher-than-ever emotional stakes: Now that Richard has ascended from low-level programmer with a promising file compression algorithm to big tech CEO appearing on C-Span, poor, lovable Jared (Zach Woods) is feeling discarded.
"Jared's having to learn how to tolerate distance from Richard as the company grows," says Woods,one of the actors I spoke to as the series entered its final days of shooting.
Distance isn't easy for a guy who's basically imprinted himself onto Richard like a little duckling since early in season 1. That's when Richard turned down a huge buyout offer so he could drive his own destiny -- and Jared, his co-worker at tech giant Hooli, decided Richard was a beacon of decency worthy of adulation.
The day I visit the Southern California set, Woods has lost his voice and won't be able to record his lines until he gets it back. That doesn't stop him from fully, and hilariously, conveying his character's anguish. The 6-foot-4-inch comedian speaks with his lanky limbs and pliable, expressive face as he acts out a scene with Jimmy O. Yang's pain-in-the-ass app developer Jian-Yang. The actors, clearly improvisation pros, put a slightly different spin on each take and seem to find every nuance just as amusing as the last.
"We just know each other's ins and outs," Woods tells me of the way cast members steer each other toward their funniest collective work.
The cast and dozens of crew members have gathered in front of the one-story, ranch-style Hacker Hostel where the Pied Piper crew lives and used to work. In a high-profile departure, T.J. Miller's dot-com millionaire Erlich Bachman left the show two seasons ago, but his yellow and green Aviato-branded mini SUV is still parked in the driveway.
As Woods and I chat during a break between scenes (since he doesn't have a voice, I talk and he answers with hand gestures), it's clear he shares his character's open-hearted sweetness. Over the course of the show, Jared has hinted at a dark past ("When I was little, I used to pretend I shared a room with Harriet Tubman and we were always planning our big escape"). But he still emerges as the cheerful, (mostly) unflappable mother hen to the Pied Piper guys. Especially toward Richard, his hero, who turns uncharacteristically tender in season 6 at the prospect of losing Jared as his loyal adviser and friend.
"Jared and Richard is one of the great love stories of my life," Woods says when I catch up with him a few months later. "A part of my heart will always have been colonized by Jared for Richard."
"I suppose I've always had a little bit of a bad attitude about technology, or a cynical attitude about it," confesses Judge, a former engineer who worked at a startup graphics card company in the '80s. He made animated hits including Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill before turning his eye to the ever-shifting swells of Silicon Valley.
The series, his first live-action show, premiered on HBO in 2014 to critical acclaim and earned legions of fans, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. "If you really want to understand how Silicon Valley works today, you should watch the HBO series Silicon Valley," Gates wrote on his blog. "The show is a parody, so it exaggerates things, but like all great parodies it captures a lot of truths."
Many of those truths come directly from Silicon Valley sources.
The show's team has met with famed venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, among other notable tech figures. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo consulted on the series. And technology advisers routinely sit in the writers' room and on-set to make sure details ring true, down to the lines of code that appear on characters' monitors. Code that real-life programmers dissect on Reddit and even try to reproduce.
"Every screen and every whiteboard and every flier that's taped to every wall has been vetted for reality," says executive producer and writer Alec Berg, who also produces HBO comedy Barry. "The best compliment I get from people who work in tech is, 'I can't watch this show cause it makes me nauseous.' Making people in that world nauseous because it feels too close to home is a nausea I will take."
It will be hard for Berg and the rest of the team to say goodbye, but Judge, who calls the show "one of the best experiences I've had in this world," says now's the time for Silicon Valley to leave Hollywood. The series was never meant to be a static workplace sitcom that endures forever, he stresses, but instead a series with a clear arc about a programmer and his brainy friends searching for success in an app-eat-app world.
"You can only go so far until you get start getting frustrated with watching them lose, and when they start winning big, there are new levels of problems … and we've done that," Judge says. "It's better to quit while it still feels fresh."
Martin Starr, who plays Bertram Gilfoyle, ultra-cynical security architect, self-described Satanist and perennial provocateur to Kumail Nanjiani's gullible coder Dinesh Chugtai, admits he initially didn't think season 6 was the right time to end the series. Then he read the script and found "a beautiful ending that really fully embodies and represents the show. It ends with something unexpected and still very satisfying, at least for us."
There's no cynicism when Starr talks about how it felt filming his last scene with Dinesh, whom Gilfoyle clearly loves despite the constant deadpan putdowns. "That was a tough one," he says.
You can't have one of these guys without the other. Hardware and software. Ones and zeroes.
Starr won't reveal spoilers, though he does share a secret about how things wind up for the fan-favorite pair. "I can tell you that we do get married, but there is a looming divorce," he jokes.
Nah, who's he kidding? "We'll be together forever," Starr says.
He remembers reading a Rolling Stone article about late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and being fascinated that a billionaire didn't appear quite as wealthy when it came to social skills.
"There's never been a time in history where that type of personality would be the richest person in the world," Judge says. "It was usually these captains-of-industry agro-male types and not these introverted, nerdy socially awkward people."
Awkwardness permeates the show, with Richard one-upping even wanna-be lothario Dinesh for the highly competitive title of Most Awkward Beta Male. Middleditch's fidgety inventor is deathly afraid of eye contact and prone to puking when he has to speak in public.
"This bumbling, foot-in-mouth smarty pants has been great to play," Middleditch says. "My favorite parts, outside of barfing or slamming my head on desks, have been those moments where you yell at the TV saying, 'What are you doing, you idiot?'"
The show has sent up everything from pointless apps to personal spiritual gurus, tech bros, tech bloggers and over-the-top themed launch parties. But through the biting satire, it also celebrates Silicon Valley as a place where innovators follow their visions -- and sometimes improve the world.
"As much as this show pokes fun at the industry, there really are some interesting folks trying to do some crazy stuff," Middleditch says. "I can't speak to the companies that somehow raise a hundred million dollars to deliver cookies to your door or some guy that makes an app that makes your cat's butthole speak in a silly voice on your phone, but hey, I guess that's better than stealing every ounce of personal data and using that to reshape democracy, right?"
Since joining the Silicon Valley cast, the actor, a lifetime gamer who's attended his share of LAN parties, has become more entrenched in the world of tech. He now zips up to the San Francisco Bay Area to invest in green companies.
"Art has become life, and I'm now earnestly trying to make the world a better place," he says. "But don't worry. I also hike and watch hockey and fly airplanes, so there's a lot of full-tilt machismo as well. Don't want to brag, but I can curl over 20 pounds. Each arm. At the same time."
The day I visit the set, Middleditch demonstrates another kind of physical deftness, the comedic kind, as he films a scene that involves jumping out of a window, landing on a thick mat below, and taking off running with a gait that in no world, not even an uber-geeky one, could be described as graceful. It requires a few takes to get the panicked awkwardness just right.
"It feels like a sitcom fall, like I'm hamming it," the actor tells Judge after watching a replay on the monitor. Then he's back at the window, jumping again. Nailing a scene sometimes requires the precision of a star coder. And lots of volleying between players on both sides of the camera.
"It's not autocratic," Woods says of the show's creative process. Judge and Berg "don't throw their sizable weight around. They're curious … and they're receptive to people who are comparatively really untested."
For those people, Silicon Valley has been nothing short of professionally and personally defining.
"The show has changed my life, plain and simple," says Middleditch, who appears in the new action-horror movie Zombieland: Double Tap and plans to work on a comedy series with his wife, Mollie Gates, about the swinging lifestyle. He and the other actors switch from quippy to sentimental when talking about what it feels like as Silicon Valley gets ready to power off for good.
"I just feel monumentally lucky and grateful," Woods says. "Like anything when it ends, there's the pain of loss, but I really feel mostly like a lottery winner."
He's already preparing for what's next. "I stare into the yawning chasm of uncertainty," Woods jokes. He'll also join new HBO space comedy Avenue 5 opposite Hugh Laurie.
Judge will stay with HBO as well, helming two projects. New show QualityLand adapts German writer Marc-Uwe Kling's satirical dystopian novel. And A5, a limited live-action series, follows a bioengineer who discovers the gene responsible for turning people into assholes.
This won't be the first time Judge has tackled the topic. Silicon Valley had its share of characters who deserve the label, and Erlich famously philosophized that "if you're not an asshole, it creates this kind of asshole vacuum, and that void is filled by other assholes."
The protagonist in Judge's new show will attempt to answer "the questions nagging at all of us: Why do assholes exist? Why have they come to dominate our culture? And can they be cured?"
Maybe Judge could enlist the Pied Piper guys to answer those stumpers with an algorithm.
Originally published Oct. 16.