Silicon Valley's heroes get their chance to Disrupt [s1e7]
It's crunch time for the show's heroes, but Kevin McFarland finds that some of the humor in Silicon Valley lacks bite.
In its first season’s penultimate episode, the first part of a divided Silicon Valley finale, there’s so much humor about the awkwardly showy displays at a big tech conference that the show gets right. It’s better to start there, since beating the drum on the problems related to female characters—not just representation, but pigeonholing characterization—gets tiring week after week when there’s no reversing course after the season has already been produced. “Proof Of Concept” absolutely nails the brutally tone-deaf and ironically repetitive nature of the startup pitch at a place like TechCrunch Disrupt. The episode’s three best moments derive big laughs from what this season has built toward: presenting in the main room for Startup Battlefield.
First, Erlich talks to the stage manager—or producer, or lighting designer, whatever role on the production crew this guy would hold, it’s unclear—about what he wants for his six-minute Pied Piper presentation. He wants big spotlights; he wants fog machines; he wants pictures in a slideshow: you know, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, himself as an inquisitive child. It’s all the glitzy bombast and hook-laden entertainment of a Steve Jobs product introduction. That’s what Erlich brings to the table, the selfish showmanship that can jolt a weary and introverted crowd into a response that will hopefully drive investor interest—as shown in the second big laugh in the large conference hall, as the Disrupt master of ceremonies fails miserably to incite applause among the crowd when the competition starts. (A running gag throughout the season at any public event has been the lackluster crowd reaction from tech workers, which is certainly a generalization, but one that wrings a laugh out of introverts creating products often ostensibly aimed at connecting people together.)
The best moment in the episode is the montage of presentations leading up to Pied Piper. Silicon Valley began with a blowhard giving a big speech about a wildly funded startup led the founders to meeting President Obama, and how their product was “making the world a better place.” Buzzwords are big, especially the moral grandstanding that can dubiously position apps that do small things as socially important causes. So “making the world a better place” gets adopted by at least five presenters in a row, each one sillier than the last. For the judges, it emphasizes how immature these startups are, that they can’t differentiate themselves in the marketplace, and don’t have enough of a solid foundation to make an impact. (They also keep repeating that they’re “local, mobile, social” and various abbreviated combinations of “LoMoSo.”) This is Mike Judge’s satire at its most uproarious, skewering the follies of presenting the tech media with variations on one moralistic theme.
And yet…and yet…”Proof Of Concept” still contains more than one glaringly boneheaded scene with regard to women in this industry. When the Pied Piper team arrives at Disrupt, Monica leads them to the show floor—after supplanting Jared as the company guide for the conference, which emasculates him in ways we’ll get to in a bit. In perhaps the only effective joke about women in tech over the entire season, she says that female representation is around two percent across the industry, but up to 15 percent for this weekend. Gilfoyle’s dry, sarcastic response: “It’s a meat market.” I don’t decry Silicon Valley for its lack of women working at Pied Piper—it’s the sad truth that it’s a fact-based standard for the industry. But many critics, including The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, have been turned off by how the later episodes of this season play into broad comedy about geek boys awkwardly dealing with girls, and the lack of a female presence to go against that grain in a meaningful way.
Take Charlotte, the young woman at the booth next to Pied Piper, who is presenting an app related to cupcakes. (Her booth display is prominently bright pink, as are the highlights in her hair, in case you couldn't figure out she’s a “girly girl.”) Gilfoyle helps her write some code for app in Java, and she later asks Dinesh for some help as well. Which sets up yet another battle in the ongoing pride war between the two adversarial programmers, as Dinesh falls for Charlotte mainly because of the code he doesn’t know was actually Gilfoyle’s handiwork. The joke becomes how Charlotte couldn’t code, and embarrassing for Dinesh to attracted to this girl for what Gilfoyle did, making him “code gay.” It’s a low comedic bar for Silicon Valley to hurdle, and it’s disappointing, because the show has proven itself to have a higher ceiling than this for sophistication.
What this plot could have done—and to be fair, it would’ve felt cheap and predictable—is to then reveal that Charlotte was manipulating both guys with her looks in order to build a more effective app that could gain some investment capital. That way, even if she isn’t a programmer, she’s at least a sly enough manipulator and businesswoman to get her pitch done without paying for help fixing something. But even then, she’s using physical attraction to play into a tired dynamic that reflects a sorry stereotype about women in the tech industry. Facts support the gender imbalance on this show, but Silicon Valley has done nothing to challenge why this world feels so closed off and uninviting to more women, and has at times played into the worst stereotypes about women attempting to step into what has been improperly portrayed as a male geek’s domain.
And then there’s the issue of Richard’s “obsession” with a former classmate named Sherry. Big Head shows up randomly, drawing Richard away to catch up as friends for a moment, but also to once again to illustrate the disparity between an employee hired away out of vengeance into financial security and a creator fighting tooth and nail for an inch of territory in the tech world. Nelson has the luxury of attending things like the Valleywag party—and Silicon Valley lending legitimacy to the Gawker offshoot is only going to inflate that site’s ego about its importance as a necessary check alongside the industry—which is how he ends up planting a seed in Richard’s head that Sherry is gossiping about a couple dates they went on in college.
This plot isn’t helpful in Richard’s characterization. It makes him look obsessive—which he should be, but not about silly, superfluous things like a random former classmate. When he should be spending his time finishing the Pied Piper demo, he’s getting sidetracked in meetings talking about how Sherry badmouthing him will balloon to hurt his and the company’s reputation before it even has a chance to grow. To make matters worse, this plot resolves with yet another bit of ill-advised comedic misdirection. While on the phone with her (presumed) boyfriend, Sherry overhears Jared staking an emphatic claim on his professional territory to Monica. But because he uses the word “partner”—which overshadows a hilarious line about distinguishing the reasons Richard vomits—she incorrectly assumes Richard is gay. And that’s…funny to Silicon Valley…because a smart, obsessive-compulsive straight tech guy mistaken as gay apparently shouldn’t be.
Jared, for his part, comes off as hilarious as he is pitiful. Monica overtakes nearly all of his duties, anticipating everything Jared could possibly do, from checking the team into the conference and the hotel, to buying a round of drinks at the bar the night before the presentation. After returning from his accidental exile on Peter Gregory’s manmade island, Jared is spinning out of control, and he lashes out in order to put his feet on the ground. Even though Monica concedes to , it doesn’t look like Jared is coming down to a levelheaded place.
These are the women in Silicon Valley’s version of the tech industry: a female coder who can’t code (when Dinesh asks if she wrote anything, she responds: "No but I write all of tweets and we have a couple hundred followers"); a former college classmate who focuses on whether Richard is still obsessed with her, calls her boyfriend for defense, and only backs down when she mistakenly assumes he’s gay; and the second wife of a TechCrunch judge, who Erlich misguidedly seduces (after also sleeping with the judge’s first wife years earlier), leading to the climactic fight that concludes the episode. Her first scene is describing how the judge’s first wife was horrible, and nearly killed him with her cheating, and her only other scene is the precursor to Erlich once again going to bed with this other man’s wife. It’s not a challenging (or even pleasant) array of characters, which isn’t the bad part—that’s the lack of balance in character types. It could be easy to dismiss this as no big deal, but Silicon Valley isn’t just a small comedy about a house full of guys. Intentional or not, it’s a commentary on how small businesses grapple with growth and success. By not addressing the female void in the industry, it’s leaving out valuable narrative territory and potentially fruitful comedic ground.
In reflecting the gender disparity in this world, this show has been accurate. But in doling out humor and creating characters, this show had shown a lack of agency in satirizing why this area of the workforce is so closed off to women, rejects them, and makes it uninviting for the percentages to shift in a more balanced direction. Where other areas of the show push to deflate the god complex infecting the peninsula and the surrounding area, Silicon Valley is woefully content to fall back on easy jokes and tired, generalized gender dynamics. For a program that could be wholly forward thinking, this aspect remains the anchor dragging down the near-perfect success around it.
• I glossed over most of the plot in this episode, but there’s some clear foreshadowing to Hooli’s Nucleus making a big splash at the show—though why that presentation (and Gavin’s keynote) would be anywhere near the startup show seems like a bit of a wrench in the plot mechanics. Erlich will be the presenter for Pied Piper, and he needs to avoid talking about the compression algorithm as it related to 3-D video, the one aspect Richard couldn’t quite workout in the demo before they go on.
• A small but insightful way this episode illustrates the difference between characters: Gilfoyle swats the MicroDrone prototype away like a gnat; Jared cowers from it and tells it to go away as it misrecognizes him several times.
• Typical for HBO’s spring schedule, most shows are taking next weekend off for Memorial Day, when the network’s new high-profile Ryan Murphy adaptation of The Normal Heart premieres instead. Check back here for a recap of Silicon Valley’s first season finale on June 1st.
• While networking, Erlich notes the promise of “Spinder,” a Tinder clone aimed at spinsters.
• This week’s dodge to cover Peter Gregory’s unfortunate absence: on safari with Lorne Michaels and Kanye West. Somehow I doubt he’d say a word to either fellow traveler.
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