Fake it 'til you make it: Episode 3 of HBO's Silicon Valley, reviewed
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.
Tonight's episode of "Silicon Valley" is all about the fuzzy line between brilliance and bullshit. When tech founders use jargon like "cloud-based data solutions" and "world-beating compression algorithms," to outsiders it may sound pretty revolutionary. In turn, truly revolutionary ideas often sound completely insane when first introduced. Few believed Steve Jobs in 1983 when he said, "In a few years people will be spending more time interacting with personal computers than with cars." Biz Stone admitted that in the early days even some of his engineers thought Twitter was "stupid."
The truth is, for all the time founders spend explaining their ideas to raise funding or attract customers, these words are meaningful only in hindsight.
Early on in the episode, titled "Articles of Incorporation," we see a promo spot for "Nucleus," the compression technology that tech giant Hooli stole last week from the show's protagonist, Richard (Thomas Middleditch). Hooli CEO Gavin Belson ("Big Love"'s Matt Ross) promises, "If we can make your audio and video files smaller, we can make cancer smaller. And hunger. And AIDS." It's a perfect illustration of how entrepreneurs like to believe they're changing the world, when they're really just changing how many songs you can fit on your phone.
Meanwhile, back at the headquarters of Richard's startup Pied Piper, the founder gets more bad news: There's already an entity in California named Pied Piper, a sprinkler company in a small town in Santa Clara County. At first, his team is thrilled. By any measure, Pied Piper is a terrible name, made worse by the sexually-suggestive logo Richard designs. Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani, who has quickly become the show's funniest actor) says it looks like “a guy sucking a dick, and he’s got another dick tucked behind his ear for later… like a snack dick.” The show's logic hinges on the fact that Pied Piper's technology is extremely powerful, yet the company will never succeed with a name and logo like that. Again, perception trumps reality.
In a move that underscores how the company's nice sweet founder is becoming a megalomaniac control-freak (an arc the show would be wise to continue exploring a la "Breaking Bad"), Richard insists on keeping the name and drives out to visit the owner of the sprinkler company, a salt-of-the-earth old-timer named Arnold. The sprinkler man decides to give Richard the name for a modest price of $1,000 because he reminds him of his son who has Asperger's (this initiates some running jokes that hew a bit too closely to the "Big Bang Theory"'s tired "What's the deal with nerds?" brand of humor).
Everything seems to be back-on-track until the show's biggest bullshitter, Erlich (TJ Miller), launches a big PR push, convincing Techcrunch, Re/Code, and -- yes -- PandoDaily about Pied Piper. In a scene drawing attention to tech journalism's tendency to focus on money over substance, Erlich brags to Re/Code's Kara Swisher, "When you combine our portfolios, Peter Gregory (Pied Piper's sole investor) and I account for billions of dollars in assets." Pied Piper may only have $200,000 in funding and no product on the market, but the mere mention of the word "billions" is enough to generate hype around the company.
Of course hype has a negative side to it: The Re/Code story enrages Arnold, who was alerted to Pied Piper's press by his son, and now sees Richard as some "young billionaire" who just took him for a ride, even though Richard can't even afford to buy lunch. Arnold ups the asking price to $250,000, forcing the startup to come up with a new name. In an attempt to peg the company's name to the fact that it makes files smaller, the team tosses out ideas like "SMLR," "Small Come Back Now Ya Here," and "Dwarfism 2.o."
Erlich takes a different approach: He drives out to the desert and chows down a Ben-and-Jerry's pint full of psychedelic mushrooms. In perhaps the show's funniest sequence yet, Erlich sits legs-crossed and goes off on a free association rant as computer-animated tech company logos spiral around his head. If you've ever spent a large part of your day reading tech PR pitches, it's truly the stuff of nightmares: "Sysbit… Digital Solutions… Integrating Open Data Spaces… Yeah… Tech Bit Data Solution Systems… Creating Unique Cross-Platform Technologies… Technologies…. Technolo-Jesus... oh fuck."
As the Pied Piper team wades through meaningless tech-speak, there's a parallel storyline that explores the inverse of this concept. The founders of another company that raised capital from Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) are in crisis mode, pleading the investor for a bridge-loan so they don't have to lay off a huge chunk of their staff. Gregory's employee Monica (Amanda Crew) insists he can handle it, but instead of talking through the problem he asks the founders to go to Burger King and pick him up one of every item. Presented with a sea of sandwiches, Gregory makes cryptic statements about sesame seeds and cicadas with only hours to go before the company has to start purging its staff.
I hated this subplot at first. It felt like every overdone "eccentric billionaire" trope: "Oh, look the rich guy is so out-of-touch he thinks Burger King is some new shocking innovation!" Then at the last moment, the writers flip the script: Gregory concludes that most Burger King sandwiches have sesame seeds. Brazil and Myanmar, which supply much of the world's sesame seeds, are about to face their worst cicada infestations in two centuries. But Indonesia also grows sesame seeds but has no cicada population. So Gregory buys up a bunch of Indonesian sesame seed futures and gives the founders the loan they need out of the projected profits of this purchase. Gregory may not sound like he knows what's he's talking about, and he may not pepper his speeches with tech-damaged aphorisms designed to impress, but that's because he doesn't have to -- he's two steps ahead of everybody else already (of course being really filthy rich helps too).
But back to the episode's main storyline: Arnold drives out to Pied Piper's incubator house to "kick Richard's ass" but discovers that the startup is hardly the billion dollar operation he expected. Reminded of his own humble beginnings as an entrepreneur, Arnold agrees to sell for the original $1,000, but only after some tough negotiation from Richard. Building off the conclusion to last week's episode, the young founder continues to find a capacity for ruthlessness. Moreover, he's beginning to like it.
As I wrote last week, Richard's transformation from unassuming geek to cold-blooded CEO is where "Silicon Valley"'s greatest potential lies. That arc may not be as jarring or disturbing as, say, a high school chemistry teacher's mutation into a murderous drug kingpin. But it would be a far truer reflection of reality, especially in Silicon Valley where young kids with a talent for code are suddenly tasked with running companies that could be worth millions or even billions in a few short years.
Three episodes in, "Silicon Valley" is a good series, but not a great one. The show's "female problem" is still on display, with Monica being the only woman regularly on the show. I get that the series' focus on young males helps underscore the insular nature of their geek-boy culture, in the same way "The Sopranos" rarely gave much screen-time to non-Italian Americans. But a show released in 2014 called "Silicon Valley" should probably engage with the tech industry's gender issues at some point, right?
Furthermore, while the naming scenes contain some of show's funniest jokes yet, a lot of the gags in "Articles of Incorporation" fall flat and come at the expense of people with Asperger's. Or Canadians. (When was the last time you laughed at a Canadian joke? Middle school?) And the episode's final scene is absurd in all the wrong ways, coming off like something out of "The Hangover" and clashing with the show's tone, which is satirical but always grounded in reality.
Nevertheless, as a dramatic and entertaining exploration into what it means to build a company in 2014, "Silicon Valley" is unlike any other show on television. It just needs to finds the right balance between truthful satire and low-brow humor. And with the guy behind "Office Space" and "Idiocracy" at the helm, I think it can.