'Silicon Valley'

Mike Judge's "Silicon Valley," now in its third season, is back on HBO.

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So we're back to square one...again. Last night's episode of "Silicon Valley" was reliably funny, but it's also the first time in the season I've been unsure of where it was heading and why. Most of the bits work individually, but the choice to bring everything back to Erlich's incubator does feel a bit like we've gone in circles. 

Still, it's funny in the moment to see Richard (Thomas Middleditch) continue to flail and sputter as Pied Piper temporarily gets away from him. Laurie (Suzanne Cryer) has ousted "Action" Jack Barker, but his chair is to remain temporarily empty. "Is there anything we should be doing," Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) asks while Laurie meets with CEOs without hiring anyone (says Gilfoyle: "Maybe she's just f------ them"). Richard is furious that the empty chair (the title of the episode) formerly occupied by Jack is seen as a more appropriate CEO than him. Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) can only note that it's "a lot sturdier than Richard...and has a lot less of Jack's a-- rubbed all over it." They're also low on cash, having spent a lot of their initial budget on junk with the expectation that they'd make Jack's stupid box, not the platform. 

The good news is that they don't have to sit in limbo: with no CEO to tell them what to do, Richard can just fire Jack's salespeople, sell the junk in the office (and cut off the surprise waffles, to Dinesh's disappointment) for spare cash, and get to work. But there's still some resistance: though he does have authority to fire Dane, Chef Amy, Keith Northwest Regional (and his shadow) and Jan the Man, they question his authority. Richard isn't one to project it, touching his nose nervously when he's asked if he has the legal authority and getting indignant and twitchy when Jan the Man suggests that he's on his way out because his tech is mediocre. Richard reads an article by a tech reporter suggesting that his company is the next Clinkle, which he repeats on the phone to Laurie until she asks him to "stop saying Clinkle, it jars the ear...Whether you appreciate it or not, I actually do have a plan here," Laurie says, advising him not to meet with the reporter just as a way to salve his male ego, and, when he does, to first meet with a PR person because he's in an emotional state. "When you're emotional, you become highly inarticulate." Richard's response: "I don't think that's true..." followed by a long, dead silence. Still, it's better than when Erlich (T.J. Miller) says the same thing, to Richard's response "Why is this thing people saying?" (Erlich:"...why indeed"). 

Speaking of Erlich: boy, he's running roughshod over Bighead (Josh Brener), isn't he? One of the show's best jokes is that Bighead keeps succeeding with no effort or understanding of why he's doing it while Erlich keeps failing by making the most effort in the most obnoxious ways imaginable. Putting the two together, then, has ripe comic potential...for a time. Erlich struts around Bighead's place, shoving apples, grass, whatever he can find into Bighead's juicer until it breaks while Bighead meekly draws up an agreement. Poor, dumb Bighead has enough foresight to talk to his business manager, but Erlich insists that a partnership should be committed to "fully, blindly, and without any concerns for the consequences...like marriage." The lines are funny, but I hope Bighead either shows a spine or finds a new way to respond to Erlich domineering him; in a few scenes per season, his story was funny. Continued under a microscope with another one of the show's major characters and no real progression, it's bound to lose steam quickly.

By contrast, Richard's ego is constantly evolving. growing greater and more difficult to tamp down, especially when Laurie calls Bighead, "f------ Bighead!" to interview for the CEO position at Pied Piper. Richard is right that his technology is possibly revolutionary, but he's so high on his own abilities and his continued survival against all odds that challenges to his authority, especially from a woman who's far more logical than he is, are starting to wear on him more easily. He grouses about being a puppet for Raviga (something Erlich brings home by comparing his bad suit to that of a ventriloquist dummy) and, when learning his sweet but stupid pal Bighead is being considered for the CEO position before he is, he sets off to Raviga to meet with the PR person and give her an earful.

There are a few problems with Richard's complaints, aside from him being a baby: 

1. As Richard meets with the PR person, Laurie has a drink with Monica (Amanda Crew), apologizing for making a mistake with Richard and promising to reinstate him after meeting with other potential CEOs entirely for show, sending the message that he, ultimately was the right person. Richard might think his authority is being undermined, but Laurie is, ultimately, in his corner.

2. Richard arrives in a room with someone without introducing himself or asking her name, instead going off about "Laurietron 6000," Bighead, the troubles of Pied Piper, and insisting that the late Peter Gregory would've been better and currently is better off dead than dealing with this (never mind that Peter was far less supportive than Laurie). The problem, aside from his cruelty and unprofessionalism: he's not talking to the PR person. He's talking to the reporter who called Pied Piper the next Clinkle, the one he was supposed to smooth things over with.

We see the punchline coming early, before the show cuts to the PR person waiting patiently for Richard to arrive and before Laurie is initially cross-cut into Richard's blowup, building him up as he's tearing her down. The humor comes instead from just how far Middleditch goes, both with the Zuckerberg-esque verbal lashings and the herky-jerky arm and body movements, showing someone trying to project righteous authority and instead coming off as a wild, out-of-control employee. When he finally realizes, as the PR person finds him and the reporter, that he's talking to the wrong person, he sinks in his chair, bows his head, and turns back to his more characteristic meekness. It's one of the most uncomfortable moments in a show known for cringe humor, but it's earned because we're seeing Richard double-down on all of his worst qualities after his recent successes, only to revert back to what we usually see from him when he realizes he's made a huge mistake. He's an arrogant jerk, but he at least seems to have some idea of when he's screwed up.

Dinesh, Gilfoyle and Jared (Zach Woods) have a slightly more manageable problem, with Jared having taken control of selling the company's unnecessary materials and done rather well...until they realize that Gilfoyle accidentally put Dinesh's hard drive in with the other ones they were selling. It's handled as easily as Jared tracking it down and Gilfoyle drilling a hole through it in front of the computer illiterate elderly man who now owns a useless hard drive. There's not much suspense in this storyline, but it does give all three of the supporting players some funny material to work with, whether it's Gilfoyle posing as a Geek Squad team member ("You're not wearing the shirt." Dryly: "I spilled coffee on it. I'm a nerd"), Jared citing his previous experience tracking down lost things ("I found my high school retainer in a dumpster and my biological father in the Ozarks"), or Dinesh objecting not to Gilfoyle's racist joke about him looking for Indiana Jones in baskets, but to the fact that "Marion was in the baskets, Indiana Jones was tipping them over." 

Richard shouldn't have an easy time finding a solution to his problem: the reporter will go live with his rant about Laurie unless he can find something bigger for her by noon the next day. Salvation comes in the form of obliviousness: Bighead mentions offhand that Gavin Belson scrubs Hooli searches of all negative mentions of Nucleus. There are some good jokes to come out of it, like Erlich trying to sell the reporter on his new joint venture with Bighead ("Bachmanetti") instead of the Gavin news, but it's all a bit too convenient, with Bighead used as a pawn in the plot rather than the pawn of a joke. And though I did laugh at Richard getting Jack's chair, only to embarrass himself by falling out of it in front of the new remote coders (meeting via Skype) Pied Piper found all over the world, it is a bit square one-ish for my taste, essentially undoing everything that happened in the first half of the season. I have faith that things will get more complicated from here, and I'm still laughing with it, but for the first time in the season, I feel like I've been here before, and that I'm waiting around, thinking, as Dinesh put it, "Is there anything we should be doing?"

Stray thoughts: 

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-Best physical comedy of the episode: Bighead buying the most expensive juicer for Erlich after the latter already broke two, then being forced to shake Erlich's hand when he's still got his arms full.

-Best reaction of the episode: Dinesh when Jared talks about the sad vulnerability of their now empty former office. "Have you ever seen a naked dead person?" Dinesh's horrified response: "No. Nooooo. Nooooo." 

-It's funny to see Gilfoyle mess up for once and still not have the decency or respect for Dinesh to apologize, choosing to drill through his hard drive rather than take it from the old guy, just to annoy his friend.

-Laurie admires H.L. Mencken: “Widely perceived as a racist, but his work on the English language is laudable, and his skewering of evangelicals is inspiring.”

-Gilfoyle admires the empty chair: "Say what you will about the chair, but at least it never told me to build a f------ box."

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