As Silicon Valley enters its second season, the Emmy-nominated HBO show and the TechCrunch Disrupt-winning company it follows face related challenges. Can Richard Hendriks (Thomas Middleditch) reach, in the words of one investor, "escape velocity" on his startup Pied Piper? Meanwhile, can creator Mike Judge's contemporary comedy of business manners achieve the same?
The opening pitch of Episode 1, subtitled "Sand Hill Shuffle," is literal. It's delivered at AT&T Park, rented out along with San Francisco Giants players by a potential investor courting Richard's favor. Basically, the scene is Facebook's 2014 holiday party. It's an effective cold open, much like the one used in Girls, where action begins abruptly and a minor cliffhanger or reveal triggers a short title sequence.
Pied Piper, having for the moment bested its nemesis Hooli, is riding high. That company, you'll recall, is the Google caricature run by CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), whose latest clever perversion of hackneyed tech mantras is "I don't want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do." But Richard and his company's bubble bursts quickly: Their chief backer, not to mention the show's funniest character — billionaire "Angel Investor" Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) — has died on safari.
It's an honest way for the show to address the actor's real death from cancer, which occurred during the shooting for season one. It's also an opportunity to address the gender problem Silicon Valley all too accurately reflects, and perhaps perpetuates: the actual underrepresentation of women in the tech world.
Adopting a similar demeanor to Welch's Gregory, Suzanne Cryer (an alum of Seinfeld and Frasier) plays a new character, Laurie Bream, who takes over the venture capital operation and seeks to woo back Pied Piper. When asked how she (subtext: a woman?) was chosen as Gregory's replacement, she responds "My return numbers were objectively the best, therefore I was selected."
Exploring their options, Pied Piper ventures out to Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park's wealthy investment row. Before a meeting with one VC fund, Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) crows "We're walking in there with three-foot cocks covered in Elvis dust." Bachman, who calls himself the Steve Jobs to Richard’s Steve Wozniak, isn't the only Beavis and Butt-head humorist of the group. That 1993-1997 send up of male homosocial etiquette is also a Mike Judge joint, and along with the 1999 film Office Space, his clearest precursor to Silicon Valley.
When the firm pushes back on Pied Piper's pitch, Richard responds with as much rudeness as he can muster. Of course that's not very much, which is one of the funnier techniques of Middleditch's performance.
However, Richard unintentionally calls the firm's bluff. Their disinterest was feigned, a strategy Erlich likens to "negging." (That's "going negative," a "real" "technique" for picking up women in the style of the Pickup Artist. What's that? As the character Jared (Zach Woods) explains in high mumblecore style, "it's a manipulative sex strategy used by lonely chauvinists.")
Richard and Erlich continue to "neg" and increase their valuation, receiving term sheet after term sheet. At one meeting, Erlich interrupts a VC out of the blue: "I agree. Bad culture fit. I say we just move on," a knowing dig at the all-purpose term. The incisive takeaway doesn't even need the explainer it gets: In this world at least, there's a direct correlation between being an asshole and making stupid amounts of money.
In the end, Laurie Bream offers the company its highest valuation, $100 million, keeping her firm and her character in the loop. Though they're ready to accept, Monica (Amanda Crew) sneaks over to the Peninsula "incubator"/man cave to tell Richard it's a bad deal, a "classic runaway valuation." As Farhad Manjoo, tech writer for the New York Times attests, it happens all the time. Richard would be wise to negotiate down, setting more realistic goals for steadier growth and sustained success.
In the show's final scene, a funeral for Peter Gregory that also serves as a memorial to Welch, Richard takes the advice. The tone here is hardly funereal, instead informed by TED talks, Apple product releases, and Steve Jobs eulogies. Including a cameo from real-life start up founder Evan Spiegel of Snapchat, each speech is somehow more self-congratulatory than the last. Gavin Belson describes the Silicon Valley "Gregory worked to build" as "Florence during the Renaissance. This is Camelot... the cradle of innovation."
And then he sues Richard and Pied Piper, ensuring that innovation can't happen before he innovates it himself.