Picking up where “Intellectual Property” left off, tonight’s episode of Silicon Valley, “Teambuilding Exercise,” opens on Richard (Thomas Middleditch) arriving at the lion’s den of Gavin’s (Matt Ross) McMansion (it even has a giant lion’s-head door knocker) to make a deal on his peer-to-peer Internet idea. Simultaneously satiric and dramatic, their meeting makes us fear for, root for, and laugh at Richard, sometimes all at the same time. Writer Meghan Pleticha and director Jamie Babbit toss in little flavor bombs of observational humor at intervals, like the decorative suits of armor Gavin toppled while rampaging through his living room after he was fired, then wind up the scene with a crisply timed slapstick rim shot as Richard’s clumsy attempt at a triumphal gesture sets Gavin’s couch on fire.
So, is partnering with Gavin a canny maneuver by a man with few options, or is Richard as nuts as people have been saying lately? There are plenty of signs that the deal is headed for a dark place, starting with the fact that Gavin begins their negotiations by lashing out at Richard like the classic narcissist he is, calling him an escalating series of names, from “mean person” and “bad guy” to “sadist” and “demented,” that apply much more to the attacker than to the target (projecting much, Gavin?). Then again, in the crapshoot that passes for business on the show, Richard’s brilliance and Gavin’s ruthless ambition could add up to a match made in whatever Silicon Valley’s version of heaven may be. There’s a kind of karmic logic in their working together, too, since Richard’s device-powered Internet would bury Richard and Gavin’s mutual enemy, Jack, by making Hooli’s all-powerful servers obsolete.
The negative charisma that operates as a kind of cloak of invisibility for Richard, to his great and often comic frustration, comes in handy in “Teambuilding Exercise,” allowing him to slide away from the house he shares with his once and future Pied Piper colleagues to Gavin’s place every day for a week while hammering out the deal without any of them noticing that he’s gone. Their interest perks up as soon as they realize he’s in business again, though they’re too socially awkward and defensive to admit what they want. They circle Richard like schoolboys trying to get up the nerve to approach a girl they have a crush on, lobbing insults at anyone else he shows an interest in while feigning indifference to his face.
Well, most of them feign indifference. Poor Jared (Zach Woods), who can never pretend not to care, gets so worked up that his skin can barely contain him. Pleticha explores the unsettling darkness beneath Jared’s wide-eyed porcelain mask, as he makes references to the group home he grew up in and delivers a bloodthirsty pledge of loyalty to an increasingly uncomfortable Richard. Come to think of it, Jared looks a little like Pinocchio, that untrustworthy wooden would-be “real” boy—though maybe not as much as he resembles “Frankenstein’s bulimic daughter,” as Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) called him. The glimpses of Jared’s bleak past can be genuinely disturbing, but there’s something inherently comic about the notion that there might be anything scary about someone so apparently sweet and ineffectual. After Jared’s murderous tirade, Richard’s discomfort may be understandable when he cringes at the sight of Jared wielding a cheese knife, but it’s also ridiculous, and Babbit magnifies the absurdity by starting the scene with a close-up of Jared digging forcefully into the cheese.
While most of the Pied Piper crew fumbles its way back together, SeeFood becomes one of those accidental successes that way outnumber the intentional kind in Silicon Valley. The app morphs from a ludicrous failure, a “Shazam for food” that can only identify hot dogs, to what Laurie (Suzanne Cryer) calls “an amazing tool for the real-time detection and filtering of penile imagery.” And that turns out to be a $4 million solution to a problem Periscope is having with people uploading live dick pics.
Pleticha’s script connects multiple plot threads to the fate of SeeFood. Bachman (T.J. Miller) becomes, if possible, an ever bigger loser by acting like an ever bigger winner. After attempting to bully first Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) and then Big Head’s (Josh Brener) Stanford students into doing the scutwork needed to make SeeFood work in its initial incarnation, he gets out-maneuvered by the students, who get the VC who had been backing him to finance them instead as they develop a new Shazam for food. (I hope the appealingly bright girl, played by Vanessa Marano, who leads the students in their revolt against Bachman becomes a Silicon Valley regular—maybe even a romantic partner for Big Head, who she seems to truly appreciate.) Bachman also gets outsmarted by his resentful squatter, backing out of his partnership with Jian-Yang just before Jian-Yang lands the $4 million.
Meanwhile, perpetually underestimated and overlooked Monica (Amanda Crew) has to shut up and smile while Laurie showers compliments and a promotion on Ed Chen for the SeeFood windfall. Granted, SeeFood owes its success more to dumb luck than anything else, and Monica wasn’t expecting that it would succeed when she brought the project to Raviga, intending it as a trap for Chen. Still, it’s telling—and galling—that a brown-nosing bro captures all the credit while a competent woman does all the work.
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