'Silicon Valley'

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


If there's a line to be drawn from Mike Judge's early animated hits ("Beavis and Butt-head," "King of the Hill") to his cult films ("Office Space," "Idiocracy") and his current show "Silicon Valley," it's the recurring idea that independence and individualism can be stupid just as often as it can be liberating. "Silicon Valley's" heroes are all smarter and more accomplished than the snickering teens of "Beavis and Butt-head" or the angry office drones of "Office Space," but they're also inexperienced in the tech world and arrogant, especially after winning tech plaudits in season 1 and a major copyright case in season 2. Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), CEO of Pied Piper, barely got time to celebrate at the end of last season before learning he was fired (or demoted to CTO, as we learn in "Founder Friendly"), but lord knows he's going to get up in arms about it.

Not that he doesn't have his reasons: told by Raviga CEO Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer) that he's created something too valuable for him to run it himself, Richard feels unappreciated for the hard work, the touch of genius, and several lifetimes' worth of anxiety he put into Pied Piper. Still, he's arrogant enough to storm out of Raviga saying that he won't accept a demotion, that he's quitting, and that his whole team will leave with him. Responses on the Pied Piper team are mixed: Jared (Zach Woods), ever-frighteningly loyal, follows Richard. Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) are annoyed that Richard's making decisions for them. And Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), will fight for Richard, but not before making sure that he can't be CEO instead.

The opening minutes of "Founder Friendly" have some of the best physical and verbal comedy of the series so far, from Richard and Erlich running over what they think is a deer but is actually a neighboring company's "BamBot" and Erlich kicking it back down (it keeps jumping back up, defiantly) Richard's young lawyer, Ron (Ben Feldman), informing him that his situation with Raviga is essentially a case where he handed a loaded gun to Russ Hannemann, who then sold the gun for Raviga to pistol-whip him. But the best material comes with the clash between Richard and Laurie, the former emotional, angry and twitchy, the latter insisting it's a very emotional time for her as well without changing her stilted businesslike tone. For Laurie, it's about finding the best person to run the company and maximize profitability, and that might mean taking the founder down a peg. For Richard, it's an outrage, and the news that it's worth far more than he thought isn't going to dissuade him from ripping off his tie and storming out...or, rather, getting the tie caught around his neck and trying many times before finally pulling it off. "Silicon Valley" is great at undercutting dramatic gestures to expose their inherent absurdity.

Erlich, for one, is outraged that Richard is being replaced by someone other than himself, and that Monica (Amanda Crew), the one Raviga board member who's usually in their corner, has turned against them. "At least Judas had the decency to kill himself after he betrayed Jesus, you know, the CEO of the world," he says with his unique mix of slackerism and bombast, with Monica's admittance that she did so to stay as a Team Pied Piper member of the board assuaging no fears. Erlich even prepares a list of insults for "Action" Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky, or "NED! RY-ER-SON!" of "Groundhog Day"), the installed CEO, suggesting to the older man that he's a big fan of "old people things" like senior citizen discounts at Perkin's Family Restaurants, deviled eggs as entrees and "LIKING IKE," he says with special disdain. But in fact, "Action Jack" is a fan of Aviato, Erlich's old company, and he's ready to work with Pied Piper's built-in team.

Erlich, for once, is the first to swallow his pride. Richard, Dinesh and Gilfoyle are having a bit more trouble. The deadpan, sarcastic Gilfoyle and the more nervy, fast-talking Dinesh have been a great yin and yang over the past two seasons, but even better than seeing them snipe at each other is seeing them unite against a common perceived enemy, in this case Richard. When their conversation by the pool gets a bit too clogged with disclaimers and prefaces that they like Richard, they find a catch-all acronym, "RIGBY" (or "Richard is Great, But, Y'know") to run through their problems with him: he's a prima donna, he expects them to quit with him after they already gave up their own apps to work on Pied Piper, the works ("F--- him...RIGBY"). Richard, meanwhile, has the benefit of an unquestioning sycophant in Jared, who hovers over his boss, more excited for his new prospects at other companies than he is ("Your pumped-ness  makes me pumped"). No one's about ready to get over it, especially after Gilfoyle and Dinesh come out and tell Richard that he's an arrogant prick and they can carry on without him, to Erlich's exasperation (he nearly convinced Richard to meet with Barker).

If none of these guys can get over themselves, at least Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), the head of Richard's old company Hooli, can...pretend to, shutting down Nucleus, Hooli's Pied Piper rip-off, and saying that though a good 1,700 people are getting axed (without severance), the failure and burden of failure is his, even if he won't see any repercussions. Ross plays his big speech beautifully, adopting a false face of magnanimity as he's forced to say goodbye, pregnant pause, to the entire Nucleus division. His countless Yes Men refer to him as courageous, and his lawyers tell him he's mostly golden, which just lives Nelson "Big Head" Bighetti (Josh Brener) to take care of.

The recurring gag of Big Head advancing at Hooli despite having no talent or ambition entirely because of his association with Pied Piper has been funny, but even funnier is Brener playing his severance scene with a mix of knowledge that he didn't do anything (says the lawyer, "Good, you're getting the hang of it already") and the goofy, childish indecision when he learns he can't keep his ID and hang out with his friends at Hooli. "I have to think about this," he says, before learning that he's getting $20 million, not $2 million, if he just goes away and doesn't say anything bad about Hooli in public or private. There's a priceless look of wonder on his face there as we see the most successful member of the Pied Piper crew getting ahead not because of his ego, but because of sheer dumb luck and total lack of arrogance.

That ego is coming back for everyone else, from Gilfoyle and Dinesh, who realize they don't understand the hardest part of the coding, to Richard, who interviews at a dumb company that wants him to work on a program that puts photorealistic mustaches on people on video (options: John Waters, Alex Trebek, Hitler, and Sam Elliott). He takes his new information to his lawyer, Pete (Matt McCoy), now incarcerated for a relapse but still deadpan and professional as ever, who informs him that "eating s---" from Raviga and avoiding the dumb mustache company would be far better. "Swallow your pride or soon you'll be eating something far worse than s---." Richard does meet with "Action Jack," telling him he's reluctant to work at his own company for someone else...and Jack understands, acting like the friendly, forgiving father figure everyone wants and gently stoking Richard's ego. "Without you handling the tech, I don't see how this company works." Judge shoots the scene with warm colors, from lush plant life to Tobolowsky's purple shirt, to make him seem as welcoming as possible, and just as Richard's leaving, he realizes this is the best shot he has and turns around. He'll swallow his pride for now, and maybe it'll work...but probably not. Playing nice and getting rid of ego goes so far, but if there's one thing "Silicon Valley" has taught us, it's that bad as unchecked individualism can be, getting stuck in corporate machinations is worse.

Stray thoughts:

-Laurie twitches and flinches very slightly every time Richard or Erlich suggest that her reasonable suggestion isn't so reasonable. It's strong comic acting in that it's big without losing its specificity.

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-Monica is familiar with the Judas/Jesus story, as she went to Catholic school for years. Erlich uses that as an excuse to ask if Catholic school uniforms are as low cut as he thinks they are, to Monica's vocal displeasure. While I do wish "Silicon Valley" gave Crew more to work with or brought back Alice Wetterlund (who was funny but underused last season), I can't deny how hard I laugh at Miller's buffoonish eternal id.

-Funnier still, though is Jared's eternal, more than a little creepy cheer, with him calling Richard the belle of the ball and looming over him in banked excitement.

-The sight gag of the mustache glitching and winding up on Richard's hand as he makes a phone call is funny, but even better is McCoy's deadpan delivery of "...mustaches..." as he tries to process Richard's decision to join another company.

-I can't say how excited I am to see this tech-savvy knuckleheads back on my TV for ten weeks.

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