Satanists, teen coders, and robot cars hit Silicon Valley [s1e6]
Silicon Valley takes aim at the emotional insecurity behind superficial male genius, writes Kevin McFarland. But it also fails to escape stereotypes about women in the tech industry.
One of the main theories Silicon Valley postulates about the tech industry in the Bay Area is that people who achieve a renowned reputation—mainly young-to-middle aged men—survive by projecting an image of arrogant genius that obscures an underlying core of aching self-doubt and insecurity. That feeling isn’t isolated to the tech industry, but it’s the lens through which the show views almost everyone with great potential, from Gavin Belson and Peter Gregory to Richard Hendriks. (Erlich is the exception as an oblivious village fool gifted with showmanship, but he’s not the main creative force behind potentially industry-changing innovation.)
In examining that insecurity—within Richard when faced with his programming limitation, and in the monstrous teenager Pied Piper hires to parachute in to fix a problem—“Third Party Insourcing” succeeds. But that’s only a third of the narrative within this episode, which splinters Erlich, Dinesh, and Gilfoyle off into the most problematic subplot of any episode so far, and further separates Jared in a funny but ultimately meaningless second subplot. The absence of Christopher Evan Welch is readily apparent in this episode, but what surprises me most is that in order to fill the hole left by the breakout actor, Silicon Valley spreads its cast too thin across diverging paths.
Kevin “The Carver” is everything obnoxious about talented programmers. As Richard states to his doctor (Andy Daly) in the opening scene, he’s always been great a programming, learning Ruby On Rails over a weekend at 17. But in this little twerp’s mind, Richard is a little old (at age 26) to be running a startup instead of being on top of the world. This is the only way in which punk rock/hardcore and coding are alike: the youngest wunderkinds look at 20-somethings and see over-the-hill has-beens and wonder why they’re still in the game.
But the Pied Piper team meets Kevin in the decaying carcass of another company—Jared says it had $35 million in Series B funding before imploding—giving everyone a grim portrait of what is at stake if they don’t get everything to work correctly in time for TechCrunch. And Richard, pressured by his team, does recognize the need to concede that he can’t figure out the cloud programming he needs to. So after finally growing a spine to spit some venom back at Kevin, he’s overseeing a teenager do the work he wanted so badly to do himself. It’s a humble moment for Richard, but rooted in frustration and jealousy, without much comic relief since the kid is such an insufferable tool.
The trouble begins when Richard believes everyone’s stories about “The Carver” a little too much. Having another problem elsewhere in the code, he lets the kid run wild while making a run for more Oreos and Mello Yello (Kevin’s marathon coding concoction of choice, along with Adderall). That turns out to be a disastrous decision: Kevin didn’t hack into Bank Of America and take down their system, he was a consultant who mucked it up so badly that the only way BOA didn’t sue him was for him to deny every working there, hence the ego-boosting cover story. The resolution doesn’t help much, since it forces Richard to seek out more Adderall from the neighborhood kids, further deflating his confidence when a little kid dupes him and beats him up. The final turn is Erlich swinging in to save the day, and the only thing that rescues the ridiculous scene is T.J. Miller’s maddening performance. His fury when confronting a little kid can only inspire uncomfortable laughter—but seriously, if that kid lived in Palo Alto, he’d run straight to his parents and Pied Piper would be dealing with assault charges. This plot starts as an exercise in tight-lipped humility for Richard, and slowly devolves into something discombobulated and manic as the team rescues the code from Kevin’s destruction. That’s a disappointing arc considering all the momentum Silicon Valley built during its first five episodes.
But the real unfortunate part is that “Third Party Insourcing” features the most frustrating plot involving women in a season that has done nothing but send up red flags whenever female characters are involved. Gilfoyle’s girlfriend Tara is visiting for the weekend, and while high out of his mind, Gilfoyle decides to mess with Dinesh by telling him that Tara is attracted to Dinesh, and it’s okay to have sex with her.
Over the course of six episodes, Monica has developed only slightly as a character, but enough to actually register a positive presence. She’s a fast-paced worker who is great at her job, overseeing Peter Gregory’s investments and taking care of whatever each business needs, as well as massaging the fragile ego of a socially challenged man widely regarded as a genius. But Tara is a cipher for every male resident of the Pied Piper house to let loose sexual frustrations, simply there as an object for the men to objectify. Gilfoyle is the laidback, confident one simply because he doesn’t seem to care. (Recall that he refused to participate in the stripper party because he won’t pay for that.) Erlich stews in anger over the idea that any woman on earth could find Dinesh more physical attractive than him, which mind-numbingly devolves into a hushed argument between the two at a Satanist baptism.
The end result is Dinesh’s extremely uncomfortable monologue, after he makes a pro and con list about having sex with Tara, where the only positive is “ejaculation.” This is a terrible case of the show thinking with the wrong head, treating a character who could be an equally talented female Satanist programmer as nothing more than an Amy Winehouse model in a satin robe distracting all the men from doing work. I hate to say it, but there’s no way this season in any way corrects the problems with female characters that were evident in the pilot. Now that the show has been picked up for a second season, there’s a possibility of a course correction next year, but for now, Silicon Valley propagates as many stereotypes about women tangentially related to the tech industry as it breaks down and satirizes about the big-name tech companies driving the economy.
As for Jared, he’s off on his own in a small C-plot about the perils of driverless car technology. He drops off some paperwork at Gregory’s office, Monica offers Peter’s car to take Jared back to the Pied Piper house—after explaining Peter’s absence (which will become a common thread for the rest of the season) and showing off the plans for Arallon, Peter’s private island built on the International Date Line. Once again, this is a comedy of errors about advanced technology that malfunctions and creates individual chaos. In a world where billionaire entrepreneurs are building private islands staffed by robots controlling all the equipment, from cranes to forklifts to cars, the lack of human interaction mixed with a cripplingly meek personality strands someone like Jared in a ridiculous sitcom scenario. And it might just drive him insane in the process.
• What’s the free food at the Satanist baptism? Chik-Fil-A, because the chicken is just too darn good: “I think the dark lord will understand.”
• Note the posters emblazoned with “Making The World A Better Place” on the walls of the failed company office where Pied Piper meets The Carver. That mantra pops up again and again in this first season, and it’s one of Silicon Valley’s most prescient satirical barbs about the infinite array of startups in the region.
• I’m really glad Andy Daly pops up for a second appearance in this episode—and it’ll be even better when he shows up a third time in an unexpected place.
• “You know, you seem confused by this, but for a different reason than I am.”
“We ask strangers on the street which celebrities they’ve been told they look like.” Another fun piece from our friend and collaborator Joe Sabia, for Vanity Fair.
Smash TV’s Megaplex feels like your entire 1980s life flashing before your eyes. Note: some of the 80+ films include 80s nudity.
Vanity Fair breaks down the individual incomes of people who work on a major Hollywood blockbuster. Assuming a budget of $200m, the breakdown is approximate but based upon average union rates and published figures. [YouTube]
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