Apr 13, 2015 · 7 minutes

Who is Silicon Valley for, exactly?

Although it's appreciated by many critics, the HBO series, which returned for its second season tonight, is difficult to place in the new television canon. It lacks the sweeping literary ambitions of most "prestige television"; unlike Mad Mennobody watches Silicon Valley to feel cultured, which is perfectly fine. But as a comedy, it's equally challenging to categorize: The show ridicules and revels in the unique quirks of its techie milieu, and is therefore too specific to achieve the broad mass appeal of something like Modern Family. On the other hand, its jokes rarely push the envelope in terms of wit, absurdity, or even decency, unlike the modern darlings of television comedy, Veep and Louie.

The only other genre of critically- and commercially-acclaimed shows it could possibly fall into is the Parks and Recreation camp, whereby adorably endearing characters elevate an otherwise average show -- except that most of the lazily cliched characters on Silicon Valley range from cruelly obnoxious to tolerably autistic.

And yet, critics and even normal non-startup people make time each week to watch and presumably enjoy Silicon Valley, despite the overwhelming abundance of amazing television. Maybe this speaks to America's unflappable devotion to "workplace comedy." From The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Murphy Brown to The Office, Americans love when television celebrates the humble drudgeries of white-collar work. Observe, for example, how The Office, in its translation to the US, lost all the existential hopelessness of the miserably hilarious British version, lending a measure of dignity to its characters' corporate servitude. And as more and more of the remaining jobs in America exist within technology companies big and small, Silicon Valley has clearly tapped into a certain cultural zeitgeist like few other shows.

Which, frankly, is about the only worthwhile thing about it.

"Sand Hill Shuffle," the inaugural episode of Season 2 isn't the worst episode of Silicon Valley -- happily, it avoids the explicit sexism and gay panic of last year's "Proof of Concept." But the episode still showcases many of the show's larger failings, particularly its inability to balance the writers' half-hearted efforts to at once skewer and celebrate modern tech culture, resulting in a ball of tonal confusion that accomplishes neither ambition convincingly. In fact, you could make the exact same observation about the quickly-aborted "new Valleywag" which was cast off into irrelevance by America's least-funny man this side of Dane Cook, Dan Lyons -- who as it happens was added to Silicon Valley's writing staff this season.

We should expect more, however, from the rest of the team behind Silicon Valley, particularly the brilliant Mike Judge. And considering the countless ways in which the new tech economy is ripe for satire, it's a huge missed opportunity to see the show continue to settle on easy targets instead of exposing the real corruption at the heart of the Valley. And while not every show can be as full of biting commentary like Veep, which beat Silicon Valley at its own game when its characters visited the Bay Area, the show simply isn't half funny enough to make its dull mockery forgivable.

Tonight's episode takes place shortly after the protagonists' startup Pied Piper won the $50,000 grand prize at Techcrunch Disrupt for its unprecedentedly fast compression algorithm. As the company looks to raise a Series A round, VCs are aggressively courting Pied Piper CEO Richard (played by Thomas Middleditch whose awkward personality tics, to the actor's credit, never feel falsely "adorkable" like so many other portrayals of pop culture boy geniuses) and his asshole hippie house-mom Erlich (played by T.J. Miller who is somehow an even bigger asshole in real life).

During their fundraising marathon down Sand Hill Road, the two quickly realize that the bigger jerks they are the higher their valuation rises. The term "negging," a favorite strategy of pickup artists, is even regrettably tossed around. This culminates in a rather uncomfortable scene that illustrates the ways in which Silicon Valley, despite vowing to fix the show's gender imbalances, still has a long way to go in this regard. During one of the final meetings, Erlich lets Richard try his hand at "negging" the prospective investors. At the end of his slidedeck presentation, Richard says to a table of VCs, two of them male and one of them female, "And if you don't fund us, you're a fucking slut!"

Judged only on its comedic merits, the joke is nothing special. While the writers of Veep are Picassos of profanity, Silicon Valley is merely finger-painting. But in the broader context of gender issues in Silicon Valley -- and on Silicon Valley -- the word "slut" has a nastier connotation than the show perhaps intends. To begin with, it calls up vile memories of Miller, the man who plays Erlich, calling a female audience member a "bitch" at a real-life Techcrunch event earlier this year. More to the point, only six percent of partners at venture firms are women. Sure, that tonight's episode features not one but two female partners is on some level a positive step forward for the show, which previously had depicted almost every female character as either a ditzy no-nothing, a sexual object either to be feared or conquered, or -- in the case of last season's only female regular, Monica -- a mother figure who cares for the hapless Richard.

And yet, the fact that Richard throws the word "slut" at 50 percent of the show's new female characters -- particularly in the wake of sexual harassment suits filed by Ellen Pao and Tinder's Whitney Wolfe -- is evidence that the show's idea of fixing its gender problems may lie in mere tokenism. In fact, the way the writers previously approached women -- by making them difficult to spot at tech companies and venture firms, then rendering them as either obstacles or aliens to the protagonists in question -- was almost preferable, considering that it was an unfortunately accurate depiction of both the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley and the immature attitudes toward women possessed by many in this male-dominated field. Sure, the show never commented on these disparities, but in its own way that silence was deafening.

The other female VC the episode introduced is Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer), a new series regular who with her robotic tone of voice and aversion to human contact embodies television's recent obsession with turning autism into a cliche. But at least her role isn't a bundle of gender biases like many others on the show. While it's not there yet, Bream's character proves that Silicon Valley has taken some positive steps in its treatment of women, instead of ignoring or -- even worse -- taking part in their marginalization.

Bream's ascendance to Managing Partner at Rivaga Capital, the firm that financed Pied Piper's seed round, is a consequence of its former head VC Peter Gregory passing away. Gregory was by far the show's best character but tragically, the great Christopher Evan Welch who played him died while filming the first season.

At the end of "Sand Hill Shuffle," the principal characters attend Gregory's funeral in what's also a poignant tribute to Welch himself. It's one of the funniest and best scenes to ever appear on Silicon Valley, with the ceremony having all the silly trappings of a tech conference. There's even a screen that shows what people are tweeting about the event.

But as great as that scene was, it also served as a reminder that while the show's writers are capable of greatness they rarely achieve it, due to the show's inability to commit to a consistent tone with any conviction and its tendency to offer only the lightest of satirical jabs at an ecosystem which -- as it aggregates more and more power and money -- has become representative of the worst elements of American corporate culture. Between the immense talents of Mike Judge and his writing staff -- Dan Lyons notwithstanding -- and a subject matter that is ripe for ridicule but also meaningful biting satire, Silicon Valley is the most underachieving show on television. And if "Sand Hill Shuffle" is a sign of things to come, the show will continue being little more than a mildly entertaining trifle that appeals to Silicon Valley insiders and a broader television audience which, despite living through a golden era for the medium, is somehow willing to settle for this.

Grade: C