Written by Rob Weiner
Directed by Maggie Carey
Originally aired April 27, 2014
While the first three episodes of Silicon Valley hinted at the series’ ability to be a stable if occasionally predictable dramatic comedy, “Fiduciary Duties” proves these early suggestions wholly substantial. In many ways, this development is both disappointing and enlightening. The episode’s irony is broad; its conflicts are, in contrast to previous episodes, relatively insubstantial; and its best laughs are found in its smallest gestures. Much like its protagonist, “Fiduciary Duties,” arrives at the point where it must make a crucial decision about what it wants to be. The looseness that inspired moments of idiosyncratic comedic gold ( “Always blue!”, “Mushroom stamp”, etc.) are filtered out by a tightness of script that better serves the style of programming (HBO’s unbroken 30 minutes as opposed to a network sitcom’s 8-10 minute bursts between commercials) and balances the gross caricature of the region/industry and its culture of leeches with focused intention. For all its successes at narrowing its narrative scope, “Fiduciary Duties” does take things rather slow. There are plenty of moments that eschew the bold satire the series has already become famous for in favor of probable absurdity. Or perhaps, having become fully acclimated to the series’ unique brand of humor, moments that may have otherwise stuck out as purposefully unreal now seem deeply embedded in the mundane madness of this world. The episode sets this tone early when Richard meets with his faux hipster lawyer who appears more interested in his collection of signed guitars than in Pied Piper’s possible success. He is the first of many (including Richard himself) to highlight the necessity of being able to explain what exactly the company does. The episode follows in the baby steps of “Articles of Incorporation” in asking Richard to do something seemingly straightforward which turns out to be impossibly stressful.
“Fiduciary Duties” vaguely compares this ability to succinctly explain what any tech company does to having “game,” aka the ability to talk to attractive women usually while drunk. Richard and company (sans Jared) attend Peter Gregory’s toga party where Richard, confronted once again with his inability to effectively communicate, uses alcohol to combat his low self-esteem. In a classic twist on a drunken hookup, Richard promises Erlich a seat on Pied Piper’s cozy board of directors. Deeply regretting this decision, Richard chooses an ideal moment to confront him: a company photo. In one of the episode’s better visual gags, Erlich, having just received the news that he will not be welcome on the board, looks to Richard with confusion and disgust before turning back around to pose for the camera. Later the two will have it out in the language of most hookups: one party feels like they were promised something, the other feels taken advantage of. The bromantic underpinnings of their argument are slightly tired after a decade of Judd Apatow films but are nevertheless sufficiently effective in creating friction between the two. Their juvenile drama plays out with Erlich attempting to fill Richard’s place (literally) while provoking further anxiety about the fate of Pied Piper.
Elsewhere, the episode develops its ironies more fully. Loveably useless Big Head gets “unassigned” from Nucleus, the project attempting to recreate Pied Piper’s lossless compression, whereupon he discovers a band of similarly cast off Hooli employees drinking beer and playing hacky sack on the roof. Later, Big Head himself notes the irony that Richard, having refused Gavin Belson’s offer of an easy $10 million, is now working his ass off while Big Head is raking in the dough at a job where he literally does nothing and that he only has because of Richard. One of the basic rules for TV writing ought to be: never have one of your characters talk about the irony of any situation. Unless of course you’re doing something clever underneath the surface, which Silicon Valley is. Rather than wholeheartedly embracing the kind of purgatorial uncanny of a clan of dudes being paid to do nothing, the series questions our inability to not work. Having been programmed to believe in productivity as having value in and of itself by years of schooling followed by more years of trivial employment, its difficult for even the deeply disenfranchised to break basic cultural relationships toward work. The myth of the externalized reward is alive and well in our culture, growing every decade while surreptitiously marketing the “you just missed it” mindset to anyone who still believes the world was ever a simpler place. In this regard, Richard’s recurring panic attacks (externalized reactions to inner anxiety) are not dissimilar to those of HBO’s most famous tortured existentialist: Tony Soprano.
These kind of glancing observations usurp the series’ louder eccentricities at its best and most fundamental moments. It is, after all, the little things that matter most. After succumbing to yet another panic attack in the bathroom of Peter Gregory’s office, having inflated himself with a hit of false confidence that manifests itself in an countenance of rage (“Being around angry people relaxes me because I know where I stand,” Jared confesses), Richard reaches another in a series of breaking points. Conveniently Erlich arrives, uninvited, to do what he does best: apologize without really apologizing. When Erlich insists that Richard is “his Wozniak” the series gets another opportunity to pay tribute to the undersung hero of Apple. Having appropriated the aesthetic sensibilities of Apple’s other Steve, Erlich admits that while he may have oversold his role, he would still like to be a part of Pied Piper. The timing happens to be perfect as Richard is incapable of seeing or speaking. Erlich continues to shine as a guy whose confidence is a reverse ouroboros: inspired by and drawn from his own ability to be confident. During their meeting he compares Pied Piper to Dropbox (the first meaningful analog for the average layviewer) though is quick to note that in terms of music and video Dropbox is more like “dripbox.” This gets a small chuckle from Christopher Evan Welch’s Peter Gregory whose characterization of the socially stunted genius gets better with each new episode.
Drawing on the “nobody likes anybody” comedy of Office Space, “Fiduciary Duties” makes a great scene of Richard and Erlich’s successful makeup. The series cuts off the non-diegetic feel good music playing after their successful meeting when Peter Gregory abruptly permits them to leave. They resume their moment in the lobby only to have it thwarted once again this time by Richard’s projectile vomit much to Erlich’s disgust. Furthering this sense of disconnect, at the start of the episode the boys meet a pair of attractive young women who are being paid by Peter Gregory to make his guests feel like they are interesting and attractive even though they most definitely are not. “Everyone that you see who is a seven or above is with us,” they tell the boys, “and everyone who’s a three is a guest.” The series is unsparing in its lampooning of Silicon Valley’s disconnect from the “proper” ways of doing things, which usually involves hard work, trust, and commitment. The results are unusually reassuring for everyone East of the Rockies though the thought of a pool coming standard with every house is admittedly enticing. Silicon Valley never bothers to extend the benefit of the doubt to anyone (other than maybe Erlich), though it’s a sacrifice that results in well-paced, baggage-less comedy.