May 11, 2015 · 6 minutes

"You're always going on and on about how this is such a good neighborhood. Do you know why it's such a good neighborhood? Do you know why your shitty house is worth 20 times what you paid for it in the 1970s? Because of people like us moving in and starting illegal businesses in our garage." - Erlich Bachman

HBO's Silicon Valley has kept largely silent on gentrification and other socioeconomic consequences of the region's massive economic growth. The show has reserved most of its satire for easier targets, like the insuppressible douchiness of "badboy" investors, the awkward Asperger's tics of coding wunderkinds, and embarrassingly out-of-touch tech billionaires. Which is fine -- the show made it clear early on that it was more concerned with accurately capturing the nitty, not-so-gritty details of entrepreneurship and startup life than with sparking serious conversations about what happens when so much money and influence is aggregated so quickly in one location and among a relatively homogenous demographic of privileged coder dudes. So i'm delighted when the show does face important issues head-on, especially when it does so smartly and eloquently as it did last night.

In "Server Space," the fifth episode of this season, the show finally seriously engaged with the complaints of long-time Valley residents who bristle at the invasion over the past two decades of the new tech gentry. And instead of following the same "tech workers vs working class" script pop culture writers usually follow when addressing this issue, Silicon Valley exposed the upper class NIMBYism and outdated municipal statutes that are rarely called out in the fight over physical space in the Bay Area -- which cleverly mirrors the startup's fight over virtual space where the episode takes its name.

The issue arises after Erlich's neighbor, an elderly wheelchair-bound man named Noah, threatens to report Pied Piper for running a business out of a property zoned for residential use.

"This neighborhood is mostly families," Noah chastises Richard one day, telling him he's not sad to see the young new arrivals to his Palo Alto street move out of Erlich's startup incubator to a more traditional office space. The startup's move-out plans are put on hold, however, after the team learns that their arch-nemesis Gavin Belson, CEO of the tech giant Hooli, has been bullying hosting companies into denying server space to Pied Piper. As a solution, Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) will have to build their own servers, a necessary but expensive endeavor that forces the startup to stay at Erlich's. After discovering that Pied Piper will remain at the house indefinitely, Noah vows to call the authorities.

But before he can do that, Richard discovers that Noah keeps a pet ferret, which is also a violation of the city's bylaws. Upon threatening to rat out Noah's pet rat if he doesn't keep quiet about Pied Piper, Erlich launches into the speech quoted above about the unfairness of blaming techie newcomers for ruining Silicon Valley.

"That is why Silicon Valley is one of the hottest neighborhoods in the world," Erlich says. "Because of people like us, not because of people like you."

The narrative surrounding gentrification in the Bay Area commonly revolves around giant tech companies and their employees driving up rents and property values at the expense of longtime residents who can no longer afford to live in the city they've called home for decades. This is an enormously valid grievance, but also a wild oversimplification to lay all the blame on tech companies, particularly their workers. Outdated zoning laws, regulations limiting the heights of buildings, and a lack of commitment on the part of city officials to build enough affordable housing play a huge role in ballooning rents and the displacement that occurs as a result. Moreover, some of the loudest opponents of the Silicon Valley's tech boom are not young protesters campaigning on behalf of the underprivileged, but upper class homeowners who in their fight to preserve the architecture and history of their region fight against the expansion of housing, affordable or otherwise. In an unproductive display of NIMBYism, this battle between old privilege and new privilege does nothing to help the underprivileged.

That's the conflict last night's Silicon Valley captured. And while some might make a similar argument to the one I posed last week, when I felt the show took a unique though extremely limited angle on one of the biggest problems in the Valley -- in that instance, sexism -- it's refreshing to see writers go beyond the conventional narrative surrounding Bay Area gentrification.

The rest of the episode was scattershot in terms of laughs -- two extended gags about bedwetting and kimonos never really take off -- but the subplot surrounding Nelson Bighetti's rapid ascent at Hooli struck a rare and perfectly-executed balance between the show's two predominant dynamics: puerile potty humor and corporate commentary on tech firms. Last week, in order to bolster the argument that Pied Piper stole its compression algorithm, Belson gave Bighetti a prestigious job as a "head dreamer" alongside the brilliant Davis Bannerchek at Hooli XYZ, the company's moonshot department modeled after the real-life Google X. While Bighetti plays around with potato guns, Bannerchek invents a non-invasive prosthetic robot arm for a monkey which, despite the monkey's insistence on using the limb primarily to masturbate, constitutes some pretty world-changing technology. Frustrated by Bighetti's lack of intelligence or vision, Bannerchek quits, calling his young partner "worthless."

"Worth is a relative thing," Belson responds.

"Yes. But worthlessness is not," Bannerchek says. "It is absolute."

After Bannerchek leaves, Belson promotes Bighetti to "sole head dreamer." In addition to playing host to some of the episode's funnier gags, the subplot is a smart commentary on the ways giant tech firms, in their ambitions to kill the competition, end up knee-capping their own abilities to innovate.

Beyond this, the big laughs were hard to come by in "Server Space." Like the New York Times' Farhad Manjoo, I only wish that Silicon Valley would put as much effort into writing jokes as it did into depicting the tech industry an dose of realism. He was more easy to acquit last night's episode, writing in his review that it consistently achieved a balance between humor and verisimilitude. He goes on to comment on the show's realism, writing, "Maybe this was what local drug dealers felt when watching 'The Wire,' or what mobsters experienced seeing Tony Soprano for the first time."

Maybe he's right. But whereas "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" depicted worlds that bear little resemblance to our own as form of escapist entertainment, the lives of people who spend all day staring at computer screens are simply too similar to the lives of average audience members, even if they don't work at a startup or tech firm. Details aside, most of HBO's audience knows what business meetings and corporate overlords are like. And so the show would be much better off eschewing the realistic specificity that TV shows about historical eras or glamorous and exciting crime syndicates benefit from, and instead concentrate on the kind of broad humor that's more easily relatable -- like Silicon Valley creator Mike Judge did with Office Space.

Then again, I learned a long time ago to stop reviewing Silicon Valley as the show I want it to be and accept it as the show it is.

Grade: B

[illustration by Brad Jonas]