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'Silicon Valley'

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

Inspiration can come from any number of places, but on "Silicon Valley," it comes from a combination of ingenuity, sheer dumb luck after being backed into a corner, and base instincts from a bunch of ambitious, smart young men who are nevertheless a bunch of immature knuckleheads. This is the same show that ended its first season with Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) figuring out a last-ditch effort to fix Pied Piper's algorithm in the middle of his friends trying to find an algorithm to sexually service every man at TechCrunch. "Maleant Data Systems Solutions" doesn't go quite that lowbrow, but it does save the day with both the threat of obsolescence and a cloud of pot smoke.

But first, the fallout of Richard's "Ocean's Eleven"-plot-thwarting trip at the end of last week's episode: Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky) has their plans to ignore the box and build the platform in his hands, and he's trying to figure out whether it's worse that his employees tried to commit felony fraud or that they're stupid enough for him to have found out in 30 seconds (Dinesh's view: "Hearing it out loud, the first one sounds worse"). He's got everything he needs to sell the box and plenty of people eager to make it, so he rhetorically asks for "one g------- reason" not to fire them. Richard's answer: "Because you can't." 

"Silicon Valley's" ability to go from macho-aping strut to ego-deflating pratfall on a dime is one of its greatest strengths; it demonstrated this at the end of last week's episode, and it shows it again in the opening of this week's. Richard's been pretty meek in front of Jack, the avuncular square who's turned out to be far more predatory than he came off in his introduction, but Richard's also smarter than anyone in the room and knows it. Middleditch's casting seems at least partially based on his slight resemblance, in looks and demeanor, to Jesse Eisenberg, and the actor has an ability to shift from an even nervier Eisenberg in "Adventureland" to arrogant, Mark Zuckerberg-Eisenberg in "The Social Network" while undercutting the latter by bringing in enough of the former, like someone who's play-acting what he saw in "The Social Network" but can't quite get a handle on it.

Case in point: Richard stands up and points out that the only people Jack can get to build the box are either in the room rebelling against him or working for his competitor at Endframe, so Jack's going to have to compromise, hire on-site support for the stupid "mole-monkey" work for the box after it's finished, and let them start the platform when they're done. "That's my final offer," Richard says, moving in to lean his palms on the table, dominate the room, "So what do you say to that, Action Ja-." He doesn't finish the sentence because he puts his palms on two pieces of paper, slipping and smashing his nose on the desk. Richard wins, for the moment, because Jack really does have no other recourse...but not without a bit of embarrassment. Nobody can be a badass for more than two seconds on "Silicon Valley."

Erlich (T.J. Miller) gets his own chance to see that when he learns that a prospective tenant has left his terrible hallway-bed arrangement (made by Jian-Yang's refusal to leave) for another startup incubator...made by former tenant "Bighead" (Josh Brener), the man that Erlich is reminded he once called "more useless than a bag of d---- without a handle." One of the best recurring jokes on "Silicon Valley" is Bighead succeeding with no understanding of what's going on around him, from stumbling into a choice job at Hooli because he happened to know Pied Piper's team to getting a $20 million severance package without having actually done anything. Erlich has become a terrific polar opposite, constantly straining to be an essential part of Pied Piper while being increasingly marginalized.

So it's a masterstroke to bring the two together as Bighead steals and improves upon Erlich's set-up (with a gorgeous mansion instead of a flophouse) without realizing he's done it. "I've caught you in a web of your own lies," Erlich yells after Bighead explains his business model, the thought never dawning on him that he's laying out exactly how it's the same incubator idea Erlich has. "I don't think so...have you?" Erlich storms out, Bighead bidding him farewell with a sweetly oblivious "See you, buddy!" as his old friend plans to make a grand exit...ruined by his car stalling in Bighead's driveway, cut to him showing up at the door and making peace, as if Bighead had any real idea that they were fighting. "Partners?" Bighead agrees with about a half a second of consideration. Erlich has to join with Bighead because he doesn't have much of a choice. Bighead has to do it because he's too obtuse to realize he doesn't have to.

The Pied Piper team now has no choice, meanwhile, but to while away building Jack's stupid box, with Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) in particular voicing his displeasure. "I've been writing quick b------- subpar code for 48 hours and I wanna kill myself. How do you do it every day, Dinesh?" (Kumail Nanjiani's response, a glare and a repeat with the variation "I also want you to kill yourself," is perfect). Richard can't even focus on writing subpar code as he's distracted by an overeager designer who wants his thoughts on how the box should look...without showing him box concepts. "We need to develop a shared aesthetic vocabulary," Dane the Designer says, showing him pictures of landscapes and volcanoes while world music plays, asking him what animal it should be. "Make it a box turtle...I don't give a flying f--- what this box looks like," Richard responds peevishly, drawing a black rectangle on a whiteboard and saying that the sad guy with the ponytail from last week's episode is the only person who'll ever see what the stupid thing ever looks like.

But the Pied Piper team being who they are, they can't help but make something decent, with Gilfoyle making his part far faster than Richard's. They're all annoyed, briefly, but the show's inspirational ambient music starts up as they realize they could make the best version of the crappy box. "Just because making the box sucks doesn't mean we have to suck at making it," and suddenly they're very interested in what the stupid box looks like and whether it's a jaguar, a gazelle or a cheetah (Gilfoyle: "F--- that, a cheetah's faster and kills f------- gazelles...but I really don't care...but definitely a cheetah"). 

If Pied Piper can't help but be good at what they do, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) can't help but be the absolute worst, first getting manipulated by Denpok (Bernard White), his spiritual adviser into realizing that he's not actually as set as he thinks and that he's going to lose, very publicly, to Pied Piper. He then sells the Nucleus idea that he literally just shut down to salespeople who approved him shutting them down, using a live bulldog as a visual aid as to why it failed. "A grotesque monstrosity... the result of inbreeding," Gavin calls it as the dog pants adorably, undermining his presentation and making him look like a jackass (not that he's aware of it) every time he brings it back in to berate it. Nucleus failed because of inbreeding, and they need to look outward to avoid getting that "horrible creature...look at that hideous face...," he says, his grotesque scowl contrasting with the dog's cheerful obliviousness. So Gavin finds a way to find outside help by making a deal with Endframe...and bringing in the same people he fired earlier in the season, with no memory of them at all even as they've worked for him close to a decade. Gavin has no choice: he's a moron, and he's currently dependent on the same people who he wrote off as useless a few weeks ago.

Jack's dependent on Richard and company, who save his bacon by selling the box to a company that was ready to go for a cheaper, lousier alternative. But Jack can't help but be a spiteful turd, entering a meeting with Richard, Erlich, investor Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer) and Laurie's right-hand woman Monica (Amanda Crew) with the news that he allowed the purchasing company to use intentionally broad language that would prevent Pied Piper from building the platform for five years. "I never specified a timeframe," Jack says like the slippery creep he is. Richard fumes, arguing that the platform is worth 1,000 times what the box is worth. Laurie does her Spock-like sputter, saying that the platform's worth is entirely theoretical at the moment, Jack reminding her, arrogantly, that she can't "do a g------ thing." Erlich sits around uselessly, voicing support for Richard at least in part because nobody CC'd him on the latest development.

It comes down to Monica, who makes up for selling Richard out in the premiere by voting against the deal. Jack storms out, and Laurie says that they'll reconvene for a vote the next day. As Jared (Zach Woods) puts it in his creepy/supportive way, "The fact that it won't make any difference makes it more meaningful," comparing Monica to a bison he saw on TV that defended its herd from a lion. "It didn't work...the lion tore into the bison and laid waste to the herd. But what courage!" They get worse news still when Gavin calls to gloat that he's moving forward with Endframe designing Nucleus, and that he'll beat them to the punch (but not before the group gets stuck at an ad they can't skip because Hooli's site kind of sucks).

They're up against the wall, ready to die, when Erlich finds inspiration...but can barely spit it out as he coughs incessantly in a fog of bong smoke. T.J. Miller plays it perfectly, trying to act both brash and inspirational (as he did with his pep talk last week) but choking on smoke at every word as he points out that Gavin saved them by putting a price on the Nucleus/Endframe deal: $250 million, far more than the stupid box is worth, allowing them to take it to Laurie and save the platform. Funnier than Erlich's initial trouble getting the news out is his continued coughing over Richard, Monica, Dinesh, Gilfoyle and Jared all coming to the same epiphany, his fit drowning out their exposition and the inspirational music that plays under. Laurie realizes it before they bring it to her attention, realizing that she "can do a g------" thing, removing Jack as CEO...without replacing him. Pied Piper can move forward without Jack's interference, but as they look at Jack's empty chair, they know there's a "can't" in there somewhere, and they're waiting for it.

Stray thoughts:

-One irksome part of the episode's last ten minutes: relying on Monica without making her too much more than a plot device, a way to save the day. 

-On the other hand, Laurie is still hilarious, especially as she informs Richard that he is not going to be reinstated as CEO. Erlich's face brightens as he opens his mouth, barely making a sound as Laurie adds, "Nor are you, Mr. Bachman.'

-Jared's tenant woes continue as his AirBnB tenant starts renting out to other tenants while throwing Jared's belongings out. Jared is still in Erlich's garage, dealing with mouse-droppings. In his sad, trying to cheer himself up sense of humor, he notes: "Funny: we're named Pied Piper, but we're beset with rats! The little rascals."

-Jared's compliment on the great version of the crappy box: "You can't help be elegant, like Audrey Hepburn." I laughed and shuddered at the same time.

-Assuming Jack is gone for good, I'm going to miss Tobolowsky, whose dorky mix of unctuousness and arrogance was never not funny. I have to admire that he goes from genuinely impressed, awestruck even, that Richard and company finish a great version of the box to rationalizing stabbing them in the back ("in the front!" says Erlich) in his very next scene.

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