“It’s sexist, but it’s about friendship”: Episode 2 of "Silicon Valley" Season 2, reviewed
There's one gag from last night's Silicon Valley everyone will be talking about this week -- and by "everyone" I mean a handful of wantrapreneurs and people like me who are paid to write about the show. That gag is aptly named, "Bro."
Bro is an app developed by the cousin of Pied Piper's sometime CTO Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani). It lets users send "Bro" to anyone else who also has the app... and that's it. It's a clear parody of Yo, which became a sensation/punchline last summer after raising $1.5 million and illustrating to many the perfect absurdity of the tech boom and the seemingly preposterous products venture capitalists are now willing to fund.
It's a pretty clever joke, functioning as a commentary on how frivolously capital flows in today's economy while utilizing a nice bit of wordplay surrounding one of the tech world's most commonly-used epithets. But while other, better-written comedies would quickly move on to the next quip, last night's episode, "Runaway Devaluation," lingers on the "Bro" joke for nearly half the episode, sucking every last bit of humor out of it and effectively killing what made it funny in the first place. But hey, given the weak batting average of Silicon Valley's writers, I can't blame them for looking to get the most out of the rare not-terrible line.
The Bro joke does however give the writers a chance to put forth what might well be the defining statement of Silicon Valley. After messing around with the Bro app, Jared/Donald (which by the way is one of the best double-named characters this side of Cheryl/Charlene) tells his team, "I'll go find some hoes to prioritize behind you." When greeted by awkward silence -- from both the characters and, I imagine, practically everyone watching at home -- Jared says, "It's sexist, but it's about friendship." Truer words were never spoken about Silicon Valley.
The Bro app becomes part of the episode's narrative after Dinesh pledges $5,000 of his $10,000 share of Pied Piper's Techcrunch Disrupt prize to the app's Kickstarter campaign. The problem? The Google-esque tech giant Hooli has filed a lawsuit claiming that Pied Piper stole Hooli's intellectual property. This could be the last profits Dinesh ever sees from Pied Piper and he just spent half of it on a bro-centric messaging app.
Of course, the suit is completely unfounded; Hooli CEO Gavin Belson simply wants to bleed Pied Piper dry with lawyer fees while buying time to replicate the startup's compression algorithm. Nevertheless, the lawsuit leads Raviga's Managing Partner Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer) to rescind her firm's $10 million Series A offer (so much for adding a female VC to the cast of regulars). What's worse, so has virtually every venture capitalist on Sand Hill Road, who last week became the victims of Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and Erlich's (TJ Miller) "negging" marathon, which culminated in Erlich slamming his genitals onto a board room table. One VC even exacts revenge by replicating Erlich's "nut neg" with his own testicles during a follow-up meeting. Did I mention this show really loves dick and ball jokes?
But back to Bro. To avoid paying the $5,000, Dinesh tries his hardest to ensure his cousin's Kickstarter campaign fails. And so when he attends a party thrown for the app's supporters, Dinesh tells each guest that in other languages "Bro" has all sorts of nasty connotations, from "a baby's erection" to "fecal eclipse." (Some might argue "bro" has similar connotations in English...) The scene proves once again why Nanjiani is Silicon Valley's most entertaining performer by a mile, giving the desperately unfunny T.J. Miller a run for his money -- even in the realm of poop and genital humor which is clearly Miller's métier.
With lawyer fees piling up and investor interest quickly waning, Richard has no choice but to accept when Hooli CEO Belson requests a secret meeting at a Mexican restaurant. Donned in a hood that is less techie sweatshirt and more Emperor Palpatine -- a fitting look for Silicon Valley's sneering villain -- Belson offers Richard what may be the only exit left for Pied Piper, shy of bankruptcy: An acquisition.
In Belson's eyes, it's a win-win. Richard gets to keep building his baby -- and keep a job -- and Belson gets to have Pied Piper's technology immediately instead of waiting two weeks for his army of engineers and their bottomless resources to develop it themselves.
Pragmatically speaking, Belson is absolutely right, barring whatever outlandish plot twist next week is sure to work in Richard's favor. But Richard, standing in for the audience's better natures, is hesitant to sell his product -- and himself -- to what he calls "a giant, soulless corporation." And at that, Belson gets at one of the most salient themes the show's ever explored:
"And what exactly do you think you're building? You're out there trying to get funding so you can hire people, scale up, roll out a product, IPO, and eventually become a publicly-traded... what? Corporation."
"We would be different," Richard responds.
"I see," says Belson. "I suppose once Pied Piper is a billion-dollar company, you'll seek out your competitors and help them. Please. What is Hooli if not the best possible future version of Pied Piper?"
Richard considers this, but just as he's about to answer... a Mariachi band approaches the table and begins to play too loudly for the two to continue their conversation. It's admittedly a pretty funny way to handle that most cliched of television tropes, the cliffhanger, and further proof that the show is at its best when playing with the conventions of sitcom storytelling, not playing into them.
Some Pando readers -- specifically the ones who enjoy the show -- don't like my reviews of Silicon Valley. And I don't blame them. I spent some time last week reading Los Angeles Review of Books' reviews of Mad Men, which is easily my favorite show on television. And while they were well-written and filled with criticisms that were admittedly fair, the writers identified some foundational problems with the show that they, unlike me, are incapable of overlooking. In the end, Mad Men just isn't for them, much like Silicon Valley isn't for me, and therefore the reviews are too dismissive to engage with the characters and storytelling on a level that intrigues true believers.
So this week I tried to take Silicon Valley for what it is, not what I want it to be, and to determine whether it fulfills its ambitions, even if those ambitions are too shallow or schizophrenic for my tastes. And by these metrics, "Runaway Devaluation" is a very solid episode. The Bro gag is overdone, but at least it's clever, as is the closing Mariachi joke. And through that final scene between Richard and Belson, the show unearths a theme that's woefully under-explored in pop culture, yet enormously resonant in today's economy where technology and innovation allow businesses to grow monstrously in size and more quickly than ever before. The small businesses of today are the corporations of tomorrow, and there's a danger in assuming that as a company expands from a garage in suburban California to a massive multinational octopus of influence, that its ideals will remain unscathed.
Citizens are beginning to realize what regulators have known for some time: That Google, despite its plucky beginnings as a small disruptive startup that wouldn't dream of doing evil, has begun to embrace the worst tendencies of America's largest companies, participating in wage collusion, for-profit surveillance, and shady military dealings. That Apple, for all of the hero-worship directed at Steve Jobs owing to his status as an "outsider" or a "different" kind of CEO, is guilty of massive tax evasion schemes, felonious anti-competitive practices, and horrifying factory conditions in China. And if Pied Piper becomes as successful as the hype surrounding it would suggest, there's little doubt that Richard will become as brutal and unforgiving a CEO as Steve Jobs. Or Gavin Belson.
I've written before that I would love to see Silicon Valley follow a similar arc as Breaking Bad, only instead of turning "Mr. Chips into Scarface," it would turn "McLovin into Gordon Gekko" -- an innocent geek into a paragon of corporate greed. The show's ambitions don't seem to be that serious at this point, but what a fantastic show it could be if it followed that path, putting everything we've seen thus far -- from the casual sexism to the extravagant startup parties -- into a much darker context and thus telling the story of 21st century capitalism more effectively than any work of fiction has yet attempted.
For now, however, Silicon Valley is still a light workplace sitcom, and last night's episode was a perfectly serviceable entry into that genre. Sure, the show has failed to completely exorcise its problematic gender politics. Monica, for example, is told to dress as poorly as possible -- as if she's ending a relationship -- when breaking the news to Pied Piper that Raviga had withdrawn its funding offer. This once again casts her less as a capable businessperson and more as a familiar female trope -- in this case, the sexy ex-girlfriend.
But between a handful of decent jokes and a compelling exploration of relevant themes facing the industry, "Runaway Devaluation" has plenty to offer fans of the show -- even if I'm still totally mystified as to who these fans are.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]