Sunday, March 25, 2018

REVIEW: 'Silicon Valley' - Richard Is Both Cautious and Reckless with Spending Money in 'Grow Fast or Die Slow'

HBO's Silicon Valley - Episode 5.01 "Grow Fast or Die Slow"

Now that Pied Piper has ample funding and new offices, the pressure to get things right stymies Richard and forces him to grow the company in a way he hadn't planned. A picky Dinesh and Gilfoyle question their ability to make good decisions. After returning to Hooli, Gavin worries about becoming antiquated.

Silicon Valley can still reliably generate the largest laughs of any comedy currently airing on television. And yet, the show hasn't really evolved or changed as it has gotten older either. It still follows the same pattern that it did in the first season. It tells the story of the Pied Piper team as they get a little bit of success, try to maintain it for awhile, fight numerous problems from outside threats and their own incompetence, face a crushing defeat and then are miraculously saved by some last minute twist in the finale that sets up the story for the following season. It's a formula that worked for many seasons as well because of the humor of the characters. Last season became more complicated because it was no longer clear if the audience should be rooting for Richard and Pied Piper to succeed. At times, he felt more relatable to Gavin than to the audience. Gavin isn't a sympathetic character even though he's often the most ridiculous and funny. He has a specific function in this world as the CEO who is always threatened by the new technology that Richard and company are developing. He has the resources to make their lives constantly complicated. That dynamic changed last season a little bit but the show didn't commit to it fully. It still was so uncertain if Richard should actually become the villain of this story. Pied Piper has the ideas to succeed but not if Richard is the one leading the company. And now, Pied Piper is committed to building a new decentralized internet. It's a form of technology that would make so many current devices obsolete. It's such a fascinating idea. And yet, it's inevitable that Richard will fail because that's how the story always plays out on this show. As such, the show has lost its luster a little bit. That's a problem because this story should be anything but predictable. The biggest laughs often come out of the show taking some ridiculous turns that are on one hand very silly and absurd but executed at such a high level that it's pretty ingenuous. This is a solid premiere but it still doesn't fully commit to an idea of what the show's future should be.

This is also a transitional season for Silicon Valley. It's the first without T.J. Miller as Erlich. When the show first debuted, Miller was easily the comedic highlight because Erlich was so outrageous. It was such a fan favorite character. Over time though, the show just ran out of solid ideas for what that character should do. It didn't kill him off. It just placed him in an opium den in Tibet for several years. That's such a random way to write off a character. But it also played into the broad nature of the story. The show was getting rid of Erlich in this in-your-face, ridiculous way because it was clear that there was tension behind the scenes with Miller and the production team. Some of those details have been released to the public with Miller becoming embroiled in his own sexual harassment story over the past year. It's good that he is no longer a part of this show - where the sexual politics have never really been handled all that well or with the awareness of some grander joke in the tech satire. Erlich's absence could force the show to evolve and change the way it tells its stories. But there is no evidence of that in "Grow Fast or Die Slow." In fact, it mostly seems like the show has promoted Jian-Yang to replace Erlich's role in the ensemble. He's the guy running the incubator house and getting involved in various side stories that are just crazy. Now, Jian-Yang has never been my favorite character because it always felt like he wasn't all that engaged by the show he was in. And here, more of an effort is made to make him a member of the full ensemble. He interacts with Richard and miraculously gives him the idea for how to defeat his competition. But he mostly spends his time trying to find a way to legally take over the incubator by faking Erlich's death. That could be fascinating. But again, it also forces the audience to be abundantly aware that this major character is no longer involved in the series.

And then, there's the idea of Pied Piper actually having money for once. The show attempted this concept back in the third season. Action Jack Barker came in as the CEO of Pied Piper and brought the company into official office space with a full workforce. He created departments to help navigate a company that was growing. It was still a story that ended in bankruptcy with Jack moving on to Hooli and Richard moving back into the main house. But it was thrilling because it was different. Here, Richard is the one controlling millions of dollars. That's terrifying because his choices have often been so anxiety-inducing. He is such an aggravating character based on the decisions or lack thereof he has made. The opening scene of the new season is so infuriating because it's Richard playing the joke completely straight. The idea that he wishes to house the growing Pied Piper in this cramped room with no windows and fluorescent lighting just should not be taken seriously at all. Richard tells Jared why he believes this to be a good idea. He doesn't want to blow through money like Jack, Russ and Gavin have so many times. He wants to run things differently this time around with the new success the company has found. It's the show being aware of its own history and knowing that it can't make the same mistakes again. The characters do need to have learned something from their failures. But this is a bad idea because it doesn't aim to make the audience understand Richard and want to root for him to succeed despite the many errors he and his team make. Richard being written with wishy-washy indecision has been effective in the past. It still fuels so many of his actions. But the show would also be so much better if it just committed to Richard being a dick who is wasting everyone's time while believing he has an inspirational new idea. Again, he should be like Gavin even if he doesn't have the confidence to fire someone simply for voicing an opinion he doesn't want to hear.

The show doesn't even commit to the idea that Richard wants to be very cautious with the new money he has for the company. The rest of the team is able to convince him that they need actual office space. Their reactions to Richard's grand reveal are the appropriate ones. It's great seeing all of them mock Richard for his idiotic idea of saving money in a cramped space. But they shouldn't be patted on the back either. Dinesh and Gilfoyle's indecisiveness also hurts the company. They are unable to hire programmers because they have too high standards for the people they wish to be working with. It allows Gavin to swoop in and hire all of the people Pied Piper is meeting with. Everyone of importance wants to be working on Richard's project. They are excited by the idea of crafting a new internet with this algorithm. It's amusing when they all realize that they won't be challenged by doing meaningful work at Hooli. They were all just tempted by the money. It again shows just how reckless Gavin is with his spending. He's back in charge at Hooli. He's handling all of the product launches with the same passion he has always had. He has seen himself as an innovator. But he's also faced with the realization that he is no longer relevant. He sees his platform as great. But it runs the risk of being obsolete as soon as Richard's internet launches. And yet, the Box 2 is the most in-demand product Hooli has ever produced. So, Gavin is doubling down on the technology even knowing the threat that is coming from elsewhere in Silicon Valley. As such, he'll probably do everything in his power to ensure that Richard doesn't succeed - which means not letting any of his new employees work on a new internet.

But Richard still ends this premiere with a new staff. In fact, he gets a much larger team than he was originally planning on. The business plan just saw the expansion go up to 15 more employees. It's a goal that Richard wanted to stick to. Even after Gavin signed everyone in the talent pool, Richard saw an opportunity in acquiring a company - Opti-moji - solely for its team of programmers. He believed he was operating in a position of strength thanks to the amount of money he currently has. And yet, he's foolish to believe that news of Gavin's new hires wouldn't leak to the rest of the tech community. Here, it is mostly dramatized through another CEO - for a pizza app called Sliceline - just openly stalking and talking about every single development that is going on with Richard and Pied Piper. As such, Richard loses his leverage. But he still pulls out a win by becoming a ruthless CEO. He sees a major flaw in this pizza app. He views them as his biggest competition because they are the ones currently ruining his plans. Gavin has always been a problem. But these new CEOs are bankrupting their companies and teaming together instead of seeing Pied Piper as the solution Richard deems it to be. He is so entitled in believing that his idea and way are always the best idea. That's pompous and annoying. And yes, it's very cringe-inducing when he confronts the two of them after learning what they did. But he is still able to use his money to devalue this company so that he can acquire them cheaply and fire the CEOs. It's again a ruthless business tactic. It proves that Richard really is evolving as a character. But it also plays as one step forward, two steps back. He makes this bold move. And then, he is immediately frightened when asked to give an impromptu speech to his 50 new employees. His nerves silence his voice and make him throw up as soon as he gets to his office. It's another case of public embarrassment for Richard where everyone is in unison in laughing at him. He's the butt of the joke - which is a fine position for him. But the show itself doesn't always know what to do with Richard's perception which has become a significant problem in need of immediate fixing. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Grow Fast or Die Slow" was written by Ron Weiner and directed by Mike Judge.
  • Monica and Laurie also have to be onboard for the expansion to 50 employees. Richard was operating with the idea that he would expand slowly in order to save money. That plan quickly goes out the window. And now, Laurie and Monica are onboard as long as they carefully monitor their growth. Expanding too quickly with a CEO who doesn't know how to lead could be quite crippling to this company.
  • Jokes about a woman being more than nine months pregnant never work for me. It's the show attempting to be funny while satirizing women's health. That doesn't seem like something that should be funny. If a woman has been pregnant for eleven months, there is something seriously wrong. No doctor would allow that to happen. Nor would she just be able to casually schedule an inducement after all that time.
  • The dynamic between Monica and Laurie is still largely the same even though they both left Raviga to form their own company. They are partners now. And yet, Monica always feels inferior to Laurie because of the comments she makes. It seems like this entire pregnancy was to make a point to Monica that she didn't miss a single day of work while also taking care of her health. It's the same dynamic as always.
  • Dinesh and Gilfoyle return home to the incubator after a hard day's work and find Chinese men in their beds. Apparently, Jian-Yang has sold their beds to new people. It's all mostly introduction for Jian-Yang's story of trying to seize control of this house. But it could present as a new complication for the main characters if they no longer have a place to live or retreat to when things get tough. And yet, the loss of that space could also be exciting.
  • The show makes a point in saying that Erlich still has ten percent of Pied Piper. And should the company really break out as the place that built a new internet, then those shares could become quite lucrative. As such, Jian-Yang trying to declare Erlich legally dead could put the fate of those shares up-in-the-air with anyone having the ability to swoop in and steal them.