Sunday, May 24, 2015

REVIEW: 'Silicon Valley' - Richard Makes a Risky Move in Order to Save Pied Piper in 'Adult Content'

HBO's Silicon Valley - Episode 2.07 "Adult Content"

With the Pied Piper team fielding job offers and Russ distracted by financial news, Richard faces the prospect of either merging with a nemesis or folding. Gavin attempts to turn Nucleus' failure into a success. Dinesh tries his hand at wooing a woman online. After Gilfoyle suggests a risky move, Richard reaches out to an unconventional client.

The Pied Piper team has struggled building on the momentum they had at TechCrunch at the end of the first season. Progress has been slowed down for them because the show itself needed to remain as similar as it was in its first season. It makes no sense that Richard and the team are still working out of Erlich's house. The only reason that it is still their base of operations is because it keeps the environment for the show and the characters the same as they were. These characters haven't suddenly figured out how to succeed with this business venture. The fact that they got all of this attention has only made things more difficult for them. And yet, they can only be reasonably taken aback by what the industry does around them so many times. At some point, Richard is going to have to learn that this is a cutthroat business and he needs to act the same way in order to make Pied Piper a successful business.

That transition starts to happen in "Adult Content." In the beginning, it's basically Richard and the team dealing with the latest crushing blow to their business - the arrival of End Frame, a company that copied their algorithm and is already building up its profits. The folks at End Frame were introduced earlier in the season when Dinesh and Gilfoyle accidentally revealed too much about how Pied Piper's code operates. They went away for a little bit before suddenly returning at the close of last week's episode. And now, the team and the audience are seeing just how much more End Frame has accomplished than Pied Piper. Yes, they have an inferior product and Richard is outraged that they stole his algorithm and are able to utilize it in the marketplace. But that doesn't make up for the fact that they've progressed as a business much more than Pied Piper has. Richard and the team largely have no idea what they are doing. They largely just react to whatever the next hurdle in their business operation is. It doesn't really feel like this season has been building towards anything. It has just been about what Richard and the team need to do this week in order to stay alive as a company while still introducing some new complication that they'll have to deal with later on.

All of that has been able to work because the characters themselves are worth watching. They are fun and amusing while offering insight into this industry. And yet, the world already them keeps changing while they are largely staying still. There needs to be more progression of the core company. Yes, those few other engineers have been hired. But they don't add anything to the narrative nor is their presence felt in a way that betters the core company. It's not abundantly clear what is happening with the business right now. They are getting ready for their launch later in the year. But so much of the narrative focus this season has been on all the business complications that Richard, Erlich, Jared, Gilfoyle and Dinesh have had to deal with. The threat that End Frame poses is a more legitimate one than Gavin and Nucleus. Gavin is too busy trying to turn his failure into a success. That is amusing especially with his outrage at his XYZ team not being able to come up with anything to add to the product. But Gavin is no longer a serious threat to Richard and Pied Piper. The lawsuit is still pending but there's no substance to that either. It's just something hanging over the show at this point.

The presence of End Frame serves the purpose of lighting the fire underneath Richard (once again) to make him act in a way that can drive his company forward. He has no idea what he is doing. He thinks he can just storm into the End Frame offices and call them out on stealing his code. That's when Richard sees all that End Frame has accomplished and really feels like his business is done. Russ is off having his own personal crisis where his only advice is to tell Pied Piper to merge with End Frame (and to storm off in anger once Richard refuses). Things are looking more hopeless for the team than ever before. And yet, that feeling doesn't overwhelm the episode like it should. This episode should focus on the desperation the entire team feels as the possibility of Pied Piper dying could actually become real. Instead all of that is undercut by a subplot featuring Dinesh flirting with a girl online - and ultimately losing her to Erlich when she finally comes over to the house. So the immense stakes of Richard having to do whatever it takes to win aren't as fully earned as they should be in the end.

The subplot with Dinesh was meant to bring more comedy throughout the episode. And yet, there still was enough amusing bits about the state of the pornography industry (and it's impact on new companies) that the Dinesh stuff really wasn't all that necessary. When Gilfoyle presents the option of Richard using the details of a deal between End Frame and a porn site, it's meant as a turning point for Richard. It's a choice with clear stakes. If he does not act, his company will fail. If he does, he becomes just as cutthroat and competitive as his competitors. It's possibly illegal too. Everyone has reason to be wary of this deal and what could happen. But it's also the only option left for Richard and Pied Piper. That's an incredibly focused and important character beat for both Richard and the overall narrative of the season. And yet, so much of the episode is distracted by providing story for the rest of the ensemble - that has nothing to do with Richard and this decision. The Gavin and Dinesh stories are amusing and tragic but they don't add to the overall desperation Richard is feeling in this moment. This episode needed to be tighter. The prospects of Richard's choice are compelling - with Pied Piper and End Frame now in competition for this contract. But that doesn't suddenly make this episode more compelling than it was.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Adult Content" was written by Amy Aniobi and directed by Alec Berg.
  • Richard stopping to see Ron, his lawyer, was a very necessary scene as it explained why he couldn't sue Russ for breach of their contract or End Frame for stealing his algorithm. It was just perhaps too much exposition though.
  • Russ' big personal crisis is that he is no longer a billionaire. To him, that's his whole identity while as a character this big outburst is simply showing him as a comedic personality (though one who couldn't reasonably offer Richard all that much help moving forward).
  • Romy Rosemont is always welcome to pop up on shows. And yet, her introduction of the head of this porn company is undercut by the blunt comedy of her business presentation being for porn (and all the crazy names of the websites that are a part of it). That was hilarious though. Which company name was your favorite in that crowd?
  • Big Head and his XYZ team either come up with an idea that is simply unrealistic (using one's thoughts to operate a phone) or it's back to the potato gun (which is suddenly out of commision because they put a Mr. Potato Head in there).
  • If nothing else, Silicon Valley does offer valuable insight into how successful companies came out of past failures and how important the porn industry is in getting new companies off the ground.