We’re recapping each new episode of “Silicon Valley,” HBO’s surprisingly not-terrible comedy-drama that follows a group of young Palo Alto developers as they deal with the absurdity and stress of building a company. We’re adopting the “Alan Sepinwall” style of television recaps so you’ve been warned: Here, there be spoilers.
Last night, the first season of HBO’s highly-anticipated comedy-drama “Silicon Valley” came to a close. The show’s eight episodes vacillated wildly between highs and lows as the writers struggled to figure out whether they wanted to craft a biting satire, a celebration of entrepreneurship, or a raucous frat-boy comedy. On rare occasions, it achieved all three ambitions, living up to the high quality we’ve come to expect from the best network on television. Other times, the show confirmed the public’s worst perceptions of the tech world, reveling in cultural insensitivities and white-boy founder fetishes. The good news is, the season ended pretty much how it began: With a smart, funny episode – and the show’s protagonist Richard having a panic attack.
When we last saw the team behind the compression startup Pied Piper, the company’s co-founder Erlich had been tackled and pummeled onstage at Techcrunch Disrupt by one of the competition’s judges whose wife slept with the shlubby, hirsute, washed-up Steve Jobs wannabe. Twice. To avoid a costly lawsuit over the “billions” in potential value Pied Piper lost by having its demo ruined, Techcrunch agrees to fast-track the startup to the final round of its “Startup Battlefield.” It also agrees to upgrade the team to a luxury “Hangover”-style hotel suite. Upon entering the spacious room, droll Satanist Gilfoyle announces, “I’m gonna disrupt this bathroom.”
Of course Pied Piper’s troubles are far from over. Earlier in the day, tech megacorp Hooli, a clear stand-in for Google, debuted its own compression algorithm, Nucleus, the underlying technology of which was stolen wholesale from Pied Piper. Nucleus achieves the same efficiency rating as Pied Piper’s, posting a formidable 2.89 “Weissman Score,” the fictional metric invented by the show’s writers so they don’t have to explain the vagaries of file compression to audiences. On top of that, Hooli integrates the algorithm into its suite of other consumer products, putting it miles ahead of Pied Piper. Hooli CEO Gavin Belson concludes the presentation by saying, “We have the speed, we have the features, and we have… Shakira!,” ushering the pop star onto the stage for an impromptu performance.
Stricken with panic that their company was just torpedoed by a celebrity brand ambassador’s truth-telling pelvis, each member of the Pied Piper team reacts differently, revealing something about their character. Pragmatic Jared, still borderline-psychotic from his disastrous self-driving car incident, invokes a word no entrepreneur wants to hear: “Pivot.”
“We’ve got a great name, we’ve got a great team, we’re got a great logo… and we’ve got a great name. Now we just need an idea. Let’s pivot!” He begins to take the name “Pied Piper” literally, explaining to a group of conference-goers that it’s “an app that could attract rodents. You know, like the fairy tale? For purposes of extermination, or to feed your pet snake… We’re not here to tell you what to do with your rats, we’re here to get you rats, stat.”
Erlich, ever the bullshitter, becomes a walking Secret app, spreading strange rumblings to journalists (including Re/Code’s Kara Swisher in a cameo) about Gavin Belson’s purported involvement in the last episode’s public onstage beatdown while questioning the veracity of Nucleus’ “Weissman” claims. Erlich very loudly denies that there’s any truth to these rumors, but merely suggesting them is enough for the tech press to go nuts.
(It’s kind of ironic that Swisher, a respected journalist with a pristine reputation, acts as a stand-in for tech journalism’s worst tendencies, publishing Erlich’s grandiose statements in an earlier episode and now once again playing into his manipulations. It’s either a subtle jab at her less virtuous colleagues or a tacit acknowledgement that even the brightest tech journalists can be fooled by the implacable churn of the tech PR machine.)
Meanwhile, Dinesh and Gilfoyle are prepared to jump ship for an old friend’s startup, Kwerpy, which recently announced a sizable Series A round. But as always, appearances are deceiving: when they approach the old friend, he reveals that the app’s beta launch was a disaster, their Series A was clawed back, and the company only has two or three weeks of cash left. Better to stick with the fiery car crash of a startup you know, I suppose.
Richard, however, gets to work. Inspired by a hilarious, high-minded mathematical discussion about how many audience member dicks Erlich could feasibly jerk off during the next day’s ten minute presentation, Richard scraps the entire Pied Piper product and takes a brand new approach to compressing files. It’s a total Hail Mary pass, with Richard arriving at the conference with no Minimum Viable Product, no consumer interface, and only one test under his belt. His “slides” are merely drawings on paper displayed via an overhead projector and, as always, he mumbles and stumbles over his words. But like the Silicon Valley days of old, when all that mattered was how many circuits you could fit on a chip, only one thing counts on that stage: Can Pied Piper beat Hooli’s “Weissman Score.”
It’s a bit simplistic and unrealistic but it makes for great sports-movie-style drama. The judges give Richard a file to compress for the audience, and it turns out to be a 3-D video, which within the show’s logic is like the “Triple Lindy” of media files. Suspense mounts as Richard initiates the compression process and is greeted my Apple’s “Spinning Beach Ball of Death.” Is this the end for Pied Piper?
Of course not. This is “Silicon Valley,” not “Game of Thrones.” The compression completes, achieving a never-before-seen “Weissman Score” of 5.2 – better than twice the previously-held theoretical limit. And with Hooli having already created so much hype around “compression plays” at the conference, Pied Piper easily takes home the top prize at the startup competition, setting up Richard for an easy life of fame and fortune.
Or not. As the show’s token lady-person Monica (Remember her? The one who’s not a dude?) says,
It’s going to get pretty insane for you, Richard. You’re gonna have more offers for funding than you’re gonna know what to do with. And you have to grow a business, hire staff, rent offices, get an assistant… Peter’s going to be a lot more hands-on and a lot tougher on you. People may take credit for your idea and try and sue you. How awesome is that? I mean, if you thought it was crazy getting to this point, you’re not gonna believe what it turns into from here. I mean, pretty soon you could be managing thousands of employees who are all looking up to you. And Gavin Belson? He’s not going away anytime soon…. But it’s gonna be amazing!
At which point, Richard throws up in a dumpster… aaaand, scene.
Throughout the series’ run, many readers have questioned why I’m so hard on “Silicon Valley.” “It’s just a comedy,” they say. But comedy at its best is a more effective medium for philosophical inquiry and social commentary than the most buttoned-up of dramas. And showrunner Mike Judge is among the smartest satirists around; anybody who thinks “Idiocracy,” “Office Space,” and even “Beavis and Butthead” are “just comedies” isn’t paying close enough attention. Furthermore, the vast aggregation of power and capital in the tech world makes it ripe for the kind of brutal analysis afforded by television’s most challenging network.
At many points this season, “Silicon Valley” chose to punt on some of the most problematic issues the tech world faces, particularly surrounding sexism and racism. And while simple vulgar humor can be wildly entertaining, quite frankly the show is not funny enough to stand on its jokes alone. This last episode (aptly-titled “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency,” in honor of Erlich’s handjob-related mathematical proof) proves that the episode is capable of living up to the expectations set by the show’s pedigree and premiere, offering up laughs, character development, and insight into entrepreneurship. The show may not require an all-out “pivot” like the one suggested by Jared, but it will need to up its consistency and sharpen its claws next season.
Otherwise “Silicon Valley” really will be nothing more than “Entourage for startups” as it was originally billed, and nobody wants that.