Written by Matteo Borghese & Rob Turbovsky
Directed by Tricia Brock
Originally aired April 20, 2014
One of the underlying ironies surrounding technological progress is the rounding up of all questionable endeavors of the past to being worthwhile so long as something good eventually comes of them. Of course, “good” is a very malleable idea especially when it comes to internet-based technologies. Is it “good” that 12 year olds have smart phones so that they can entertain themselves while their parents get some much needed alone time? Is it “good” that GPS systems allow drivers to efficiently navigate their way to the grocery store down the street? In the midst of an episode rife with hilarious and pointed insight, one character points out how “nobody jerks off to magazines anymore.” The long-suffering poster child for selfish indulgence, masturbation is to sex what social networking is to actually being social. What further complicates this analogy is the analog components of solo sexual fantasy fulfillment (a phrase I think I heard Erlich mutter during his vision quest) have been usurped by the further isolating and anonymity-inducing digital world. Is it then “good” that pornography is so much more accessible than it ever was before? Does a vintage Playboy gain or lose value when the person sitting next to you on the morning commute is, in all likelihood, privately accessing Youporn on their tablet? Is this what progress looks like? Continuing its tradition of lampooning the tech industry while simultaneously providing a sympathetic portrait of the plight of the common startup, Silicon Valley manages to call into question the value of so-called progress without ever taking a regressive stance.
At the heart of “Articles of Incorporation” is a name: Pied Piper. As with most simple things, there’s a surprising amount of controversy surrounding it. Mostly that everyone except Richard utterly despises it. When he unveils his first official purchase as CEO, a box of company t-shirts the color of Leprechaun vomit, his “employees” respond with their characteristic deadpan disgust. “It looks like a guy sucking a dick…with another dick tucked behind his ear for later. Like a snack dick,” Dinesh offers. Perhaps worse than his employees’ disdain for his company’s name is the fact that it’s already in use by a local sprinkler company. In order to cash Peter Gregory’s check and actually have the capital required to get his company off the ground, Richard needs to acquire the rights to said sprinkler company’s name. As Jared points out: names stick. Borrowing the running Larry/Jerry/Gary joke from Parks and Recreation, he offers the anecdote that his name is only Jared because his former boss and current rival to Pied Piper, Gavin Belson, called him “Jared” on his first day. “My real name is Donald,” he claims, not that anyone is actually listening.
The episode’s almost-entirely linear plot is occasionally offset by cutaways to Peter Gregory’s office where we learn a bit more about his “genius,” which happens to look a lot like Asperger’s. Speaking of developmental disorders, Richard has early success with the crotchety owner of the sprinkler company thanks to his unstoppable awkwardness. For the first time in the series, Richard’s hesitation and total lack of business acumen plays in his favor. In one of the episode’s best bits, Dinesh reminds Richard that he’s not much of a negotiator. When Richard counters with false confidence, Dinesh deflates him with ease. “You’re a terrible negotiator,” he insists. “I’m a decent negotiator,” Richard compromises. As usual it’s hardly Richard’s fault when things fall apart. Erlich hits the tech blogs with a heavy dose of PR and its there that the sprinkler guy learns that the company he’s offered to sell his name to for $1000 is apparently worth “billions.” Which is, of course, malarky. When Richard attempts to reward his employees with a margarita machine, he inadvertently bankrupts his personal account. Completely broke and now on the hook for $250,000 for the rights to the Pied Piper name, Silicon Valley is clearly demonstrating its skills at putting roadblocks at every single juncture in Richard’s fledgling development as a business owner.
While much of Richard’s frustration is due to his employees’ open hostility or, worse still, misguided attempts at being helpful, much of the great comic material in Silicon Valley belongs to the supporting characters. Dinesh and Gilfoyle have the series’ best antagonistic relationship and this week it produces a ripe dissection of illegal immigration. When it comes to light that one of Pied Piper’s employees is not a legal citizen, the spotlight falls on an understandably irate Dinesh before landing on the Canadian Gilfoyle. This subversion of racial expectations gives Dinesh plenty of opportunity to voice the prejudices most commonly associated with white American’s attitudes toward any and all off-white, brown or otherwise “colored” people. Meanwhile, Martin Starr’s Gilfoyle plays his ambivalence perfectly noting how he did in fact have to get into the country by foot…after his car broke down on the Ambassador Bridge. In addition to this pointed role reversal, the series’ gets in some easy jabs at Canada. “You know who else is from Canada?” Dinesh asks, “Justin Bieber: the Hitler of music.”
Silicon Valley is not so much cynical as it is a projection of the weaknesses and vanities of the human spirit. Celebrating his success preemptively, Richard inadvertently encourages a liquor store employee to follow his dream of designing an app that helps users remember where they parked their car by essentially just writing it down. Richard’s skepticism doesn’t translate and when he attempts to return the margarita machine after failing to close the name acquisition deal, he discovers that the overzealous employee has quit his job and gotten his mom to mortgage her house for startup money. The news of Richard’s failure is crushing but, like the series itself, also functions as a contrast to the glamorous image promoted by the tech industry. Like most endeavors, being constantly on the brink of failure is part of the deal. When Richard enters another downward depressive spiral, Erlich attempts to encourage him with a classic manipulation of history. He claims that the most famous names in Silicon Valley had little or no business experience when they first started but that they instead possessed a kind of supernatural confidence. In essence this is replacing one mythic narrative with another but its enough to motivate Richard to call the sprinkler guy and make enough empty threats to provoke him into coming to the house. Meanwhile, Erlich takes off into the desert with a bag of hallucinogenic mushrooms in a vain attempt to come up with a name to replace Pied Piper. In a hilarious twist, he ends up in a gas station bathroom repeating “making the world a better place” before kidnapping a child whom he believes is himself reincarnate.
Richard’s humble dwellings and irrepressible sincerity eventually make mush out of the sprinkler guy’s self-righteousness. While he continues to compromise on his passive purity, the series ensures that every new step in Richard’s development as a business owner is hard won. Thoroughly entertaining, the series is also intensely straightforward. While Veep mines the logic of the screwball comedy for its sense of narrative unpredictability, Silicon Valley is comparatively confident with a more sitcom-esque arc. That’s not to say the twists and turns aren’t regularly ingenious or that its plots aren’t effectively carried forth from one episode to the next. In fact, the series’ emphasis on clear stakes puts it closer to its dramatic cousins than most comedies care to go. The danger in narrative emphasis is that a comedy becomes just a drama with jokes (a la Jenji Kohan). Silicon Valley succeeds in providing a comfortably engaging plot without sacrificing its sense of humor about the plot’s very pratfalls: characters seemingly disengaged from the success or failure of their company, elitist geniuses discovering profit in the breadings of popular fast food restaurants, an entirely inept protagonist, etc. It is a thin line to tread but Judge and his team does so with awkwardness so efficient it’s nearly elegant.