Has HBO's Silicon Valley lost its vision? Episode 4, 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.
The word of the day in tonight's "Silicon Valley" episode is vision.
As viewers know, the show's founder-hero Richard has built a uniquely powerful algorithm for compressing video and audio files. When asked to explain why his company matters, Richard emphasizes that his algorithm's compression capabilities, measured by a fictional benchmark called "The Weissman Score," are way ahead of anyone else's. That sounds pretty cut-and-dried; if you can fit more files into a smaller number of bytes then you've got something of value. It hearkens back to the Silicon Valley of old, when the measure of a tech firm's worth was tied almost entirely to the number of circuits it could fit on a tiny slab of silicon.
But the tech world has changed. It's no longer enough to describe the value of your company in such tangible terms. No, you need "vision." You need marketing-speak. You need "cloud-based," "engagement," and maybe even an inflated startup comparison or two ("It's like Uber for bidets"). This struggle to find the right words plagues Richard throughout an extremely uneven episode that made me wonder if it's the show's writers who are the ones in need of more vision.
In the first scene, Richard visits a smarmy lawyer whose prized possession, hilariously, is an electric guitar signed by those gods of rock Sergei Brin and Larry Page. The lawyer tells him not to worry if Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) has invested in other compression startups because, unlike those other founders, Richard has "vision." He hears the same thing from Gregory's assistant, Monica. This is obviously an emotional hand-job they give to all founders because it's clear to everybody that Richard has nothing resembling a plan for this company.
As Richard continues to grapple with describing what his company does in a way that's amenable to investors, the Pied Piper team takes a break to attend a toga party thrown by Gregory and emcee'd by pop star Flo Rida. (I cannot put into words the perfection of Welch's delivery when he says, "Thank you, Florida.")
This is a party, with women, so it's time to cue the weekly discussion about how "Silicon Valley" fails to engage with gender issues in a meaningful way: In the vein of Episode 2's strange Mochachino stripper incident, two beautiful women begin to flirt with Richard and the rest of his socially-awkward, malnourished employees. After they exchange a few pleasantries, Richard asks the women what they do for a living and discovers they are actresses hired by Gregory to chat up his guests. "Pretty much anyone over a 7 is with us," one actress tells Richard.
It's a fairly innocuous scene, but it perpetuates "Silicon Valley"'s problematic handling (or lack thereof) of the tech world's gender issues. As many have noted, there are barely any women or minorities on the show, and, with the exception of Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), these non-white-male characters are rarely given anything interesting to say. Tonight, we saw more women than in any other episode to date, but like always, the women function not to tell us anything about their experience working in Silicon Valley; they exist only to tell us things about the male leads' own insecurities.
What we don't see are the larger ramifications of a sub-culture that often views women as either objects or, in the case of Richard and his friends, creatures from another planet. To be fair, there are also male actors paid to schmooze with guests, but men are well-represented elsewhere on the show. I've made the argument before that the lack of meaningful female voices (and non-white voices, again save for Dinesh) is deafening and possibly intentional, underscoring how insular some startup communities can be. But with so much discussion in the tech world focused on gender issues, perhaps "Silicon Valley" should do more than simply portray this Boys Club attitude and take the opportunity to comment on it.
This ties into a larger problem with "Silicon Valley." It does a good job accurately depicting the technical details and some of the power-dynamics at play in startup culture. But instead of looking for opportunities to satirize these elements, increasingly the show falls back on easy targets and low-brow humor. There's certainly nothing wrong with low-brow humor: The fart and dick jokes of co-creator Mike Judge's "Idiocracy," for example, are pretty serviceable. But that film's funniest moments brutally satirize mass-media and consumer culture. "Silicon Valley" had that bite in its first two episodes, but has since lost some of its appetite for satire. Not every show needs to be an ambitious commentary on society like "The Wire," but the characters aren't endearing enough and the jokes aren't funny enough for "Silicon Valley" to succeed as a light human-driven comedy. It needs that edge.
Of course, finding a way to better balance satire and dick jokes may not be a big issue for Judge, who's done it expertly in the past. The harder problem is balancing the show's remaining satirical elements with the sense of earnestness the writers want us to feel for the characters' struggles to build a company.
The final scenes perfectly illustrate this awkward tension: Petrified by the idea of explaining his nonexistent "vision" to Gregory, Erlich swoops in to bail him out in the meeting. He tells Gregory:
Today's user wants access to all of their files from all of their devices instantly. That's why cloud-based is the holy grail. Now, Dropbox is winning. But when it comes to audio and video files, they might as well be called 'Dripbox.' Using our platform, Pied Piper users would be able to compress all of their files to the point where they truly can access them instantly. We control the pipe, they just use it. That's the vision in Richard Hendricks' head."Cloud-based." "Dropbox." "Pipe." Now those are buzzwords an investor can understand. It's a solid pitch, and Richard is right to thank Erlich for saving his ass. But the sappy "Scrubs"-esque acoustic guitar that wafts in as Richard rewards Erlich with an apology and a board seat brings more weight and sentiment to the scene than it deserves. Finally, in another tonal shift, Erlich invokes Jobs and Wozniak to describe his professional relationship with Richard for the umpteenth time, and Richard vomits all over him.
Did Richard lose his lunch because of his still-frayed nerves, and this is just another ill-advised gross-out joke? Is the vomit a reflexive comment on the sappiness of the previous scene? Is it a response to the horrifying prospect of hearing yet another grand delusional Jobs-Wozniak reference?
It could be any of these because, more and more, "Silicon Valley" can't decide whether it wants to be a raucous bro-comedy, a biting satire, or a heartfelt portrayal of building a company with your friends. Maybe it can do all three. But that would require a great deal more sophistication, and yes, vision, to pull off.