Graphic hilarity ensues when Silicon Valley ventures to East Palo Alto [Recap: season 1, episode 5]


Did you catch it? It’s a moment I’ve been waiting for Silicon Valley to address in some capacity—the divide between the tech corporations in Palo Alto and the blighted district to the south. (East Palo Alto is a misnomer—EPA is bordered by Menlo Park to the west and Palo Alto to the south.) The first four episodes of Silicon Valley have attempted to subtly insert regional details about the Peninsula into the dialogue of the show, which has always made the Bay Area kid in me beam. Episodes have referenced Sand Hill Road, which is the exit off highway 280 that leads right to the Stanford University campus (dotted with venture capital firms all the way down) and other geographical details that make the series feel lived-in. But tonight, in the opening scene between Erlich and popular graffiti artist Chuy Rodriguez, in a neighborhood referenced as high-crime and which clearly makes Dinesh uncomfortable, Erlich obliquely refers to their location.

By enlisting a buzzed-about street artist to paint a mural on his garage door and design a corporate logo, Erlich wants to stake a claim that Pied Piper isn’t like “those motherfuckers across the freeway would make,” later citing Facebook, Twitter, and Google, who all use lowercase letters in company logos. (Despite the fact that Facebook hired muralist David Choe to paint some of its walls.) That places this scene in one location in my mind: East Palo Alto. Silicon Valley isn’t a rigidly defined region within the Bay Area, but the divide between Palo Alto/Menlo Park and EPA couldn’t be clearer.

We can actually turn to a bit of television history to elucidate the split. Remember season two of Veronica Mars, when County Supervisor Woody Goodman (Steve Guttenberg) tries to get the richest area of Neptune (the “09ers”) to incorporate as a separate town with its own police department and mayor? In describing the plan, the successful case study of Palo Alto gets referenced, as well as how the town’s incorporation caused East Palo Alto’s economy and real estate prices to tank when left out of the deal. (The first supermarket within EPA’s borders in 20 years opened in 2008.) According to the 2010 Census, 64 percent of Palo Alto citizens are Hispanic or Latino. Even East Palo Alto hasn’t escaped the rapid boom—but not really to the benefit of its inhabitants. Along the “Bayshore Freeway” (it’s just “101”), brand-name retailers like IKEA, Starbucks, Best Buy, Sports Authority, and Nordstrom have moved in onto bulldozed land. The cycle of gentrification continues.

Why does this entire preamble about geographical details and socioeconomic divides matter? Because it’s the first real instance of Silicon Valley reaching beyond the tech world into the surrounding environment of where this takes place within the Bay Area. The Chuy Rodriguez plot line in this episode is the only one in the five episodes sent out to critics that gave me fits. Initially, I wanted to condemn this as the most foolish element of the series so far. But I’ve watched this episode a few times now, and it has improved on each viewing, because I don’t see it as Judge and his writers lobbing a socioeconomic other into the world of tech guys. It’s a chance to show just how much like everyone else Pied Piper and its employees are, and how, though they may have delusions of rebel, outsider status, they’re only looking for risk within discrete parameters. They want to look cooler than the establishment, but not so out there that they can’t one day achieve a level of success that makes them a peer.

The best part about Chuy is that he has business savvy: he wants stock options, and when confronted with this negotiating tactic, Erlich recoils Erlich spends most of the episode either putting his foot in it in terms of prejudiced assumptions or being paralyzed with indecision because he’s afraid of appearing racist. In that moment, when he downplays his acumen with regard to his involvement in Silicon Valley, he attempts to patronize someone he views as a man with three assault convictions and a good reputation as an artist. Sure, Chuy makes an honest mistake in thinking Dinesh is Latino, but Erlich runs with it to get a better deal. But he does eventually get Erlich back by going explicit in the mural: an Aztec warrior penetrating the Statue of Liberty from behind. Chu has his artistic justification, saying it “comments on the whole Latino struggle for justice in America,” while also representing yet again those allegedly sexually graphic David Choe murals that adorned Facebook’s first Silicon Valley office.

Ultimately, Erlich has to own up to the limitations of his rebellion, in the same way that Dinesh and Gilfoyle have to adjust to Pied Piper establishing a “corporate culture.” Erlich returns the mural, and Chuy agrees to pain them another design—this time one that fits right in with the other lowercase logos that populate startups around the valley. Sure, these guys have the new hot compression algorithm (it pains me to write that phrase), but they’re only slight degrees away from everyone else. Silicon Valley may be taking a bit of a generalized tack here, but the idea that people within an industry with similar goals aren’t that different from one another is a detail that often seems taken for granted in all the fierce competition.

There’s also yet another great scene indicting the tech industry for creating wildly expensive and dubiously valuable breakthrough technology that never seems to function properly. Nelson “Big Head” get dragged into Gavin’s office by his upper-level cronies, but Gavin is teleconferencing in from Jackson Hole, using a $20 million piece of hologram technology that takes the creepy CNN election-night coverage, mixes it with finicky cell reception, and uses it for almost-there communication. The point is clear: attempting to increase the in-person feeling of digital communication as a status symbol can backfire in hilarious ways, as Gavin grows increasingly frustrated when the TeleHuman, then Hooli chat, and then even a standard cell phone fail to connect him to Nelson. There are limits to the reach of communication technology, and an isolated valley like Jackson Hole, Wyoming is one of them.

That leads to the first scene between former business partners Gavin and Peter. Unbeknownst to anyone, Richard entered Pied Piper into TechCrunch Disrupt, and forgot to say he’d already received funding before being accepted, confusing Gavin to the point of vengeance. Monica’s reaction to seeing Gavin in the restaurant—and Peter’s reaction after the information gets relayed—is priceless. And Gavin can’t just have an awkwardly adversarial chat, he has to be a dick and come back to the table for the killing stroke: he’s giving the keynote at Disrupt, where he will introduce Nucleus, Hooli’s competitor to Pied Piper, to the world. Peter’s simple reaction, poorly masking infinite rage: “This is displeasing.”

Richard’s ignorance—which ignites Jared’s implementation of simple workflow techniques to combat rampant inefficiency—puts Pied Piper in a position to finish a working demo in two months when they were already struggling to make it in five. And now the pressure is on. Not only because the timeframe shrinks down to eight weeks until that conference, but because if Richard isn’t willing to agree to that shortened window, Peter will pull his funding, no other VC’s will touch Pied Piper, and it’ll all be over. And that’s not all, since Monica finally tells the whole truth and reveals to Richard that this is all just a giant pissing match between Gavin and Peter. They don’t give a rat’s ass about Richard or his company; they care about humiliating each other in the race for the Next Big Thing. This is the insignificance of the “little guy” in the shadow of billionaire titans battling. Even in a young industry that’s frantically searching for new innovation, there is such a thing as old money. (People are decrying the death of Facebook and Twitter all around; the half-life of technological relevance is shrinking.)

What I would hate to happen here, and what would really tank Silicon Valley after its already precarious position of having one significant female character, is for a romantic plot to develop between Monica and Richard. The foundation is there, in her guilt over duping Richard into taking Peter’s offer and keeping information about her boss’ other “compression plays” hidden, as well as her personal financial stake in the company because she actually does believe in the work Richard is doing. And Richard is the kind of guy who would bumble around comically when confronted by any sort of mistaken interest from a pretty woman. For the sake of the show and what it has the potential to say about the region and industry, I hope it has higher ambitions than that.

But I’ve grown fond of Silicon Valley, for the way it plays Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr, two of my favorite young comedians, off each other for sport, and how Zach Woods attempts to mediate them. The humor here is on my wavelength, and I identify with all the regional details packed in specifically designed to make me want to watch more. There’s a world here that comments on a slice of the American tech economy that is otherwise voiced by tech blogs with varying degrees of snark. I read plenty of that too, but I like that even in an episode of Silicon Valley that I initially hated and thought was the worst so far in the season, I could burrow down, find some meaning, and end up enjoying it. To me, that’s the mark of a comedy that’s working, and I’m glad the show now has a bit of a future to build toward.


Extra Bytes

• Chuy ends up selling the mural for $500,000—to Gavin, who basically sees it as overpaying for a bit of vengeance. Now Hooli displays a mural that graphically depicts Erlich, symbol of a direct competitor, getting penetrated by an Aztec warrior.

• “This just became a job.”

• “However angry he is, I am one tenth as angry.” TJ Miller plays a goofball so well.