Written by Clay Tarver
Directed by Mike Judge
Originally aired May 18, 2014
In a twist whose very invariability is offset by its hilariously physical deployment, Mike Judge and company split the climactic weekend at TechCrunch into two parts. Considering the timing (HBO took Memorial Day weekend off), the heightened stakes should work in the series’ favor as the finale of this admittedly extra short first season draws near. Since its humble beginnings, Silicon Valley has charged forth with an emphasis on plot. While the writers have been undeniably successful in this area (from initial financing to high stakes competition in just 7 episodes), the pace has often left viewers wanting for real character development. For a series that seems oddly committed to both humiliating and highlighting its central collection of outcasts, Silicon Valley has done little to offset its own prominent stereotypes. To the credit of the writing staff, they’re stuck in a bit of a Catch-22. A realistic portrayal of the emotionally locked up and socially stunted doesn’t tend to lend itself to meaningful interactions or obvious growth. “Proof of Concept” attempts to demonstrate the vulnerability beneath the layers of snark and Red Bull. In many ways, having neglected to spend enough time with the inner lives of these characters, the results are unconvincing.
After spending its cold open demonstrating the effects of stress on Richard’s ability to retain (or not retain) bodily waste, the gang arrives at TechCrunch: a breeding ground for narcissism and meaningless jargon. While the episode does little to improve on the well-developed theme of micro technological advancement as philanthropy (there’s a great montage of awkward CEOs who all claim that their product will “make the world a better place”), it does enhance the image of the industry as a place where bad ideas go to get overdeveloped. In one particularly ridiculous scene, the judges grill a CEO who’s developed a product that uses microwave technology to heat human skin. The concept is wrought with the same kind of abstract madness of Jared’s misadventure in “Third Party Insourcing.” Better still is how the stubborn CEO responds with a “thank you” to every sharp criticism from the stupefied judges. In this regard, the series indirectly defends Pied Piper’s usefulness though it does make one wonder if the company is in fact just another dud in a sea of potentially useful ideas that want for broader application. “Proof of Concept” does not risk this kind of suggestion but rather plies its characters with distraction and a looming deadline.
The detours here are the episode’s greatest strength. With his characteristic casual delivery, Erlich announces early on that he previously slept with the wife of one of the judges. While his conviction regarding their place within the competition wavers, it does not stop him from making the same mistake twice albeit with a new wife. Big Head makes an appearance and introduces us to a new component of Richard’s character: a previous relationship. With a woman, no less! While this leads to a curious, largely unaccounted for shift in Richard’s behavior, it’s worthwhile for its resolution wherein a defensive and emotionally deprived Jared, having been thwarted by a well-meaning Monica at every step, becomes increasingly sensitive to his tenuous position within the company. On the verge of a mental breakdown, he confronts her. Richard’s former beau mistakes his passionate plea for romantic devotion and later apologizes to him, cautioning Richard to “be careful.” It’s a clever and effective turnaround that brings Jared back into the fold and gives Richard the clarity he needs to finish proofing his demo.
The series has a habit of building entire scenes around the dramatic or comedic value of a single moment. Continuing to highlight the homoerotic underpinnings of Dinesh and Gilfoyle’s relationship, Dinesh falls in love with the girl at the booth next to Pied Piper’s after reading her code. He is horrified to discover that it was written by his mortal enemy. Later, when he is invited to the girl’s room to watch Cloud Atlas (after a hearty jab at that movie’s quality), he finds himself unable to tear himself away from the code, at one point literally becoming aroused by it. It’s an amusing detour and any extra amount of time we get to spend with Kumail Nanjiani is definitely appreciated. Still, the whole thing seems constructed so that he can explain to Richard that while this girl is certainly attractive “almost every woman is attractive” to him. Similarly, Jared’s moment with Monica seems built for his diagnosis of Richard’s different reasons for vomiting, the best parts of which are smartly tucked into the background. While the series commits wholly to these individual moments, the ebbs and flows that carry us there are occasionally stilted or redundant.
The second to last episode of a season can often feel like a lengthy set up as opposed to a freestanding arc. While the series doesn’t try to hide this tactic, the more insidious fluff of the episode belies the cheeky, elliptical conclusion. Utilizing this kind of winking self-reflexivity, the series can occasionally feel like Pineapple Express for the technologically literate, where craft is cleverly disguised by content. Made to seem more casual than it really is, Silicon Valley is proactive in nearly every sense, which is ultimately why “Proof of Concept” feels disappointing. Most series don’t have the narrative luxury of Game of Thrones where the season’s climax actually precedes the finale, radically shifting the function of the final episode. Silicon Valley has forgivably set the stage for its own dramatic showdown and I have little doubt that it will prove immensely entertaining.