'Silicon Valley': Doc Jensen reviews season 2
You don’t need to mind-meld with Mark Zuckerberg or understand a micro-bit of PC engineering to appreciate the satire of Silicon Valley, Mike Judge’s sublime comedy about the dreamers, schemers, and wannabe wheeler-dealers who drive the zillion dollar tech industry.
The show tracks the travails of a scrappy start-up called Pied Piper, the brainchild of Richard Hendriks (Thomas Middleditch), a sweet, painfully awkward nerd-savant who has developed an algorithm for super-duper fast data compression. I imagine it has something to do with how quick—or slow—the page you’re reading just loaded. He works with—and suffers—a band of scruffy coders and suitless suits who can barely interface with each other, let alone anyone outside bubble world.
Their names are awesome. Dinesh Chugtai (Kumail Nanjiani) and Bertram Gilfoy (Martin Starr) squabble over company titles that don’t exist. Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) degrades himself with delusions of tech mogul grandeur, as well as some seriously ornate facial hair—a combination of gun handle sideburns and a ginger soul patch. They’re prematurely full of themselves yet totally in over their heads, and the show works this paradox to produce mega-biting digs that even a luddite can laugh at: Silicon Valley is the comedy of hubris that our “genius”-crazed, hype-hooked culture deserves and needs. Airing on a night saturated with strong cocktails about cocky, hideous men (and one hilariously shallow lady Veep-turned-president), it’s the light chaser to Mad Men’s stiff drink. [Caution: Spoilers for season 2 ahead!]
Season 2 opens with a sly, dry sequence that plays like a declaration of thesis and themes. What better way to prove that the show isn’t all inside-baseball wonkery than with a scene set… inside a baseball stadium?
We find Richard and cohorts wallowing in the afterglow of their big win at TechCrunch Disrupt, being courted by an investment company with a private party inside AT&T Park—home to the San Francisco Giants. Humble Richard is uncomfortable in his own skin. He hates this ostentatious, hollow wooing as much as he hates sports. He doesn’t want to be the next Zuckerberg or Jobs; he doesn’t want to be a “visionary” brand or world-changing institution. He just wants to do the work he loves and get paid fairly for it.
His significance-starved colleagues? Not so much. They pine to be giants, just like those tall, strapping, filthy-wealthy Winklevoss twins (they make a coy, fleeting cameo here), and they lap up the flattery. But their hunger for more, more, more trips them up: Dinesh and Bertram—competing for the attention of an attractive woman—lose her interest when they start bickering over which one of them gets to be called “chief technology officer.” It’s an omen for harder splats and harder laughs to come.
The premiere tracks Richard and Erlich as they visit one capital fund group after another to receive pitches for financing, an exercise that allows Silicon Valley to flex its different comedy muscles—from savvy ribbing to ribald gags and one-liners. Individual scenes satisfy and contribute to a well-designed whole that stretches across episodes. Knowing they’re a hot property and feeling their oats, Erlich convinces Richard to jack up the bidding for Pied Piper with a risky strategy of “negging,” a tactic imported from Erlich’s dating life. It’s a perverse form of playing hard-to-get that involves insulting those trying to court you. (Single people these days. Sheesh.) It builds to a, shall-we-say ballsy move that is only described, never shown, yet busts the gut all the same. (“There’s a linear correlation between how intolerable I was and the height of valuation!” marvels Erlich.)
As satisfying as all this is unto itself, the gag is actually a set-up for the cutting joke of the second episode, in which Richard and Erlich must visit the same moneymen again after suffering a setback—this time with a posture of quasi-sincere humility. Epic flailing abounds.
This one-two punch gets the season off to a sharp start after a rookie year in which Silicon Valley slowly, surely found a strong, entertaining voice—but finished scattered and soft. I attribute almost all of this to the death of one of the show’s key players: Christopher Evan Welch, who played Pied Piper’s aloof, eccentric original backer Peter Gregory. The actor passed away about halfway through the filming of season 1. With the more gregarious, ribald Miller, Welch was one of the show’s designated hitters—that character a comedy can always count on for a solid laugh or inspired moment. (Coming soon to EW: Our ranking of TV’s best sitcom DHs.) He was both an offbeat mentor to and mercurial foil for Richard, and when he disappeared from the narrative, Silicon Valley lost some of its power and dimension.
Season 2 immediately gets the series back on track by directly confronting Welch’s absence. You’ll learn in the premiere that Gregory has also died, and you’ll giggle and squirm when his assistant Monica (Amanda Crew) tries to explain how. The gambit catalyzes the chase-the-money narrative, which gives the storytelling focus and grist for satire. The funeral for Gregory that ends the episode doubles as an opportunity to mourn Welch without veering maudlin. (Dig the imagining of geek grief: A eulogy that uses a PowerPoint presentation and complex equations to deconstruct the value of a life lived. “But how exactly can we quantify another human’s contributions to mankind? Let’s break it down in its three component elements…”)
Actually, the funeral is a brilliant set-up for a punchline that launches the plot of the season. And taken together, the bitter joke of it all expresses the show’s shrewd mix of idealism and realpolitik: Silicon Valley earnestly cherishes the sweetness, unpretentiousness and humility of its hero, even as it deals honestly with greed, jealousy, and the tough fact that empires and fortunes are rarely built through fair play. This dense line, thundered by Richard’s megabucks nemesis Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), sums up so much of Silicon Valley’s wit, wisdom and worldview: “I don’t know about you people, but I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.”
Silicon Valley has been criticized for its lack of female representation, even though this boys’ club comedy accurately reflects the woeful lack of female representation in the real-life Silicon Valley—and even though the satire has taken aim at tech industry sexism. Still, point taken: Monica isn’t much of a presence, and serves to serve the male characters. Season 2 attempts to address this deficiency with a new character played by Suzanne Cryer, a replacement for Peter Gregory in both function and comedic energy.
I detect other adjustments in the first two episodes, too. Erlich remains a large, absurd personality, but he strikes me as a tad more grounded, and Miller’s high-voltage performance feels a few watts more reserved. Meanwhile, Nanjiani’s Dinesh gets a showcase subplot in the second episode that embraces his Pakistani identity and hits hard the foibles he shares with so many other characters on the show: The story sees Dinesh trying to sabotage his brother’s Kickstarter campaign for a social media app—it lets guys ping each other with a simple “Bro”—simply because Dinesh can’t stand to see his sibling succeed while he struggles. (Meanwhile, Bertram, Dinesh’s bickering Pied Piper bro, tries to sabotage his sabotage. Silly, stupid boys.)
I love how smart and snide Silicon Valley is about ambition, and I love how the show’s actors imbue their geeky cut-outs with winsomely flawed humanity that allows us to care about them even as they undercut each other and themselves in their pursuit of success and significance. Pied Piper may never reach greatness, but Silicon Valley seems ready to. A