Richard (Thomas Middleditch) bumbles his way to an unlikely victory at the start of the season premiere of Silicon Valley, posing as an Uber driver in the latest chapter of Pied Piper’s comically inept struggle to survive. The nerdily awkward pitch Richard initiates to the venture capitalist in his back seat, video-conferencing with the rest of the Pied Piper team to show off the unexpectedly popular platform they’ve created more or less by accident, doubles as a reunion for the show’s viewers, bringing the main characters together in all their dysfunctional glory.
Ironically, it’s doormat Jared (Zach Woods) who captures the VC’s interest, since his enthusiasm and admiration for the team’s work is (as always) so real, in stark contrast to the comically wooden attempts by Richard, Bachman (T.J. Miller), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), and Big Head (Josh Brener) to communicate the kind of enthusiasm that Jared un-self-consciously oozes. In typical Silicon Valley fashion, their stunt is ridiculous, ham-fisted, and desperate—and effective.
As Willy Staley points out in his profile of Mike Judge for the Times Magazine, that kind of “verisimilitude-as-satire” is one of the show’s signature moves. The monstrously narcissistic pettiness of Hooli chief Gavin (Matt Ross) is another prime example. In the latest of the show’s many comic illustrations of the fact that no one in Silicon Valley is too big to act small, Gavin launches a jihad to take down Jack (Stephen Tobolowsky) for the sin of getting their private plane to drop him off first on the way home from China. The test runs that Gavin orders, with paramilitary zeal, to determine whether the altered flight plan was less efficient than the one that would have gotten him home first constitute the least principled, most spendthrift stunt he’s pulled since that fiasco with the elephant last season.
For the crime of beating Gavin at their game of corporate one-upmanship, Jack gets banished to a hell out of Office Space, so many substrata down in the Hooli complex that he has to switch from the tony glass elevator and descend several flights of stairs to get to the narrow slab of melamine that’s now his desk. The irony is that Jack deserves this ignominious treatment, but the intellectual theft that merited punishment—stealing the black-box idea from Pied Piper after they fired him—won him a high position at Hooli instead. To underscore the injustice of it all, Monica (Amanda Crew) gets the same treatment for having acted with integrity, taking Richard’s side last season in a dispute that made her boss look bad. Her new closet of an office is directly across from a busy men’s room, where she can’t help but see people peeing every time someone opens the door. The episode is peppered with sight gags like that one, indelible paintball pellets that highlight some particularly absurd aspect of corporate or tech culture in the Valley.
Success has always had a haphazard relationship to basic competence, let alone true talent, in the world of the show—and, presumably, Silicon Valley itself—as evidenced by the way sweet little Big Head keeps failing upward. He continues to float to the top in “Success Failure,” winding up with most of the stock in Piper Chat thanks to his father’s stony resistance to Bachman’s machinations. He very nearly even becomes the company’s new CEO—though, as he keeps assuring Richard, that was “Not my call!”
Richard’s decision to step down as CEO of Pied Piper is played as both comedy and drama. It starts with him surprising the rest of the group—who are waiting to ambush him when he comes home—by coming in through the back door, then saying he’s quitting before they can fire him. But the slapstick turns serious as eternally sincere Jared tells Richard how sad he is to see him go. When Richard shoos him off like a stray dog, eager to hide his own guilt and sorrow, the only thing that keeps your heart from aching is the knowledge that that dog will probably keep circling back, since Richard and the Piper Chat crew still occupy adjacent rooms in Bachman’s house. Richard may even wind up back at the helm of the company he created. After all, this isn’t the first time he’s been pushed out of the CEO chair.
The series skewers Silicon Valley’s social mores and morals with a precision that The Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya might envy, but it has a soft spot for the socially awkward man-boys and marooned women who inhabit that world. Middleditch is particularly adept at making Richard lovable even when he’s at his most unbearably self-righteous and blindered. This episode is full of moments when the actor mines Richard’s guilelessness for humor and pathos, winning our sympathy while making us laugh. Like when he’s pitching the venture capitalist and he keeps twisting his head back to look at him, grinning like an excited eight-year-old. Or when he reacts to Jared’s perplexing answer to his question about why he knows how to do manicures (“When I was on the street, it was a means of survival”), his look of wary befuddlement totally relatable, yet unguarded enough to be funny.
The reappearance of douchey investor Russ (Chris Diamantopoulos) plays out as a classically structured one-two-three punch of a joke, starting with him complaining about having to pick up his daughter from dance class (“My fucking nanny got another DUI and lost her license”); building with a focus on his orange monstrosity of a luxury car, its doors opened up like wings on a huge, angry insect; and ending with his realization that he’s at the wrong school. But the real punchline may be that Russ nudges Richard into verbalizing an idea—about developing a whole new, user-controlled Internet to bypass the one that’s already been so hopelessly corrupted and monetized—that actually sounds pretty brilliant.
Could Russ have some hidden talent as a VC, or was this just a case of even a broken clock being right twice a day? Only future episodes will tell, but we can be sure of at least one thing: If Richard gets a chance to develop his idealistic brainchild, it won’t take long for it to get as distorted by greed and tunnel vision as everything else that comes out of Silicon Valley.
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