Thomas Middleditch (HBO)

The central quest of Silicon Valley has always been a fight for individualism. While the story has at various points gone between questions of money, influence, and ego, all of it eventually boils down to the fact that the show’s heroes want to be in control of what they believe is theirs. Richard Hendrix, who was lucky enough to create a once-in-a-lifetime algorithm, has repeatedly moved away from options to give up or sell out because this is his idea, and for all the their interpersonal bickering the Pied Piper team has grown to have similar affection for it. It’s a terrific bedrock for the show, as all its brilliant vulgarity and absurdity manage to be in service of something greater.

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Now with season three though, that fight appears to be lost as Pied Piper is in the hands of its investors and whatever influence they had has been cleaved in twain. “Founder Friendly” introduces us to a new status quo in the world of Silicon Valley, where the keys to the kingdom have changed hands and everyone’s trying to figure out how to deal with that. It’s something of a muted start to the series, sequences echoing classic moments without eclipsing, but the performances and the punchlines are still sharp enough to reassure that bad news for the company doesn’t mean bad news for the show.

As opposed to the season two premiere “Sand Hill Shuffle,” which jumped ahead a few months after season one’s finale, “Founder Friendly” throws us right back into the cliffhanger of “Two Days Of The Condor” as Richard learned he’d been dismissed as Pied Piper CEO. It creates an immediate feeling of energy that lets us know just how far Richard’s come since the early days, ready to take the fight directly to Raviga—only for said fight to be delayed by hitting a deer-like object. This scene is peak Silicon Valley, pitting the seemingly pointless BamBot against an increasingly profane and furious Erlich (“Fucking Stanford Robotics!” elicits the night’s first big laugh) and playing to how poorly he’s faring. On Silicon Valley, technology moves of its own accord, and good luck to those who fight it.

On the subject of fights, Richard learns very quickly that the one he’s chosen isn’t one he can win. Richard may have learned how to stand up for himself, but his confidence and rage are met with indifference by Laurie’s calculating mind and regret by a Monica who knows there’s nothing she can do beyond try advocating for his interests. It’s a tragicomic sequence, as Richard’s valid arguments are undercut by how he got himself into this mess, Ron reminding him with a step-by-step breakdown of how bad the deals he made to keep his company afloat were. Ben Feldman is particularly on point here, going from being willing to leave spin class so he can back up his buddy “Richie” to the curt businesslike dismissal of “Mr. Hendrix” once Richard makes his intentions to leave the company clear.

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But if Richard leaves, he’s not just going to lose his familiarity with Pied Piper, he’s going to have to reintroduce himself into the monkey house that is Silicon Valley start-ups. His company was founded on a good idea, and there’s fifty bad ones for each of those, as he learns when he starts looking for new employment and gets taken on a mustache ride. Quite literally, as he learns he’s being recruited to help manage a project to put digital mustaches on video images, producing a hilarious sequence as Richard’s equipoise gradually bleeds away as he’s given mustaches of Sam Elliott, Fu Manchu, and Hitler. (Mustaches that do in fact shift to his ear, underlining why Flutterbeam needs him in the first place.) Faced with this world as his alternative, why wouldn’t he take a meeting with the new boss?

And what a boss they’ve chosen. One of the great strengths of Silicon Valley—a strength it shares with its Sunday night partner Veepis that it’s one of the best-cast comedies on television, a trend that continues by adding beloved character actor and podcaster Stephen Tobolowsky to the mix. His “Action” Jack Barker is that most perfect of antagonists in that our protagonists look even worse by comparison, as he’s a proven manager of many startups and founder of a cancer charity in honor of his mother. (Erlich: “Yeah, how’s that going?” Richard: “I bet his mother’s dead.”) We don’t get a lot of Tobolowsky in the first episode, but he lives up to expectations in those brief scenes, able to hold his own and give the founding members the respect they deserve. That is until you realize just how surface that respect seems—his compliment to Richard about his “great brain” is exactly what Flutterbeam sold him on—and he becomes ten times a shrewder player than you’d expect.

Richard’s struggle to come to terms with his new situation is mirrored by the rest of the Pied Piper staff, who all take their own approach to the new boss. Erlich opts to go on a literal and metaphorical offensive, spewing age-based attacks cribbed from various Friar’s Club Roasts. It doesn’t measure up to his blissful dismissal of the VCs in the season two premiere, but it does reinforce T.J. Miller’s unmatched ability to rattle off insults without missing a beat. And the way that Jack diffuses Erlich’s anger by saying he remembers him from Aviato (Jack: “Is there any other Aviato?” Erlich: “Legally, there cannot be”) is another reminder of how fragile Erlich’s ego is for all his bluster, and one that smoothly co-opts him into a position of pushing Richard into the new status quo.

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As to Pied Piper’s other employees, Dinesh and Gilfoyle remain rooted in self-interest. The dynamic between Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr is first in Silicon Valley’s armory for the way their analytical minds mesh with their contempt for others. Said dynamic is on full display in “Founder Friendly” as they try to figure out their position, concocting a way to say bad things about Richard while still respecting him thanks to the acronym R.I.G.B.Y. (“Richard Is Great, But, Y’know”). And when they realize how much of what Pied Piper is owes itself to Richard’s skills, it goes back to their own pettiness and hatred of the other. (Gilfoyle: “You’re telling me Richard did all of this? Shit, I thought you did it. Now I respect you even less.”) These two haven’t changed, and it’s good to see them decide to continue an affiliation with Richard, even if it’s only because he’s a best-case scenario.

Also acting largely in his own interest is Richard’s one-time rival. While “Condor” made it seem as if Gavin Belson’s head was about to fall on the chopping block for the Nucleus debacle, Gavin proves himself to be a far more savvy CEO than Richard and practices the time-honored tradition of passing the buck. The entire Nucleus team gets axed for failing to perform, Gavin gets to appear that he’s making a magnanimous decision (“I trusted them to get the job done, but that is the price of leadership”), and Denpok runs away from Big Head as fast as he ran to his side in the first place. While there was potential in the idea of Gavin’s ouster from Hooli, Judge and company evidently decided between seasons not to go in that direction, and that leaving him as a petty idiot with near-omnipotent powers was a better use of him in the narrative.

It’s a smart move in the early going, as Gavin’s tendency to make decisions based on his own needs and justify their greater good later hasn’t been humbled at all. His reaction to the employee clause that cost him Pied Piper intellectual property turns out to be a purge of his company, rationalizing that by cutting the bottom 20 percent of employees who have the troublesome clauses. (A realization he comes to in wonderful fashion, as one of his five attorneys looks up and has to be brought up to speed.) He could do great things with that money, but he follows his pettiest impulses, kicking potential usurper Big Head out of the company with a nondisclosure clause and a $20 million golden parachute.

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It remains to be seen where this new status quo will take season three, but in terms of comedic payoff Silicon Valley is off to a solid start. This is a show where no success comes without conditions and humiliations, and seeing the company’s original brain trust figure out where they fit into the changed order makes for a logical next step. It’s post-R.I.G.B.Y. world, and they’re all just living in it.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome back to version 3.0 of The A.V. Club’s Silicon Valley coverage! Happy to be back for the next stage of Pied Piper’s growth. (And with more versions to come in the future, as HBO renewed it for season four in advance of tonight’s premiere.)
  • If you haven’t read it already, Wired did a fantastic article about Silicon Valley’s cast as a microcosm of the current state of comedy. Strong recommend.
  • This week’s closing track: “Nobody Speak,” D.J. Shadow featuring Run The Jewels.
  • Some fun new details peppered throughout the opening titles that reflect real-life changes in the industry: Lyft butting up against Uber with a slightly smaller balloon, people leaping off the Twitter sign with golden parachutes, a fleet of drones ferrying bottles of champagne.
  • No sign of Alice Wetterlund’s Carla this episode, which is disappointing. Hopefully Jack will think her skills are worth retaining in the same way Richard’s are.
  • Great to see the return of Matt McCoy’s Pete Monahan, who remains a grounded and sage presence for Richard despite the renewal of his legal turmoils. (“Are you an attorney here to see a client?” “No, I’m a client here to see an attorney.”)
  • Jared isn’t as present in the premiere as the rest of the cast, but Zach Woods deserves some kind of physical comedy award for the way he tries a lot of little puffs to empty Erlich’s bong.
  • Ron’s interpretation of Richard’s predicament: “Well, you basically loaded a gun and sold it to Hanneman, he sold it to Raviga, and Raviga just pistol-whipped you.”
  • Erlich’s response to being definitively shot down as a CEO candidate: “You, madam, are a shrew of the first order.” Also a fun callback to season two, in that every time Laurie only refers to Erlich as “Mr… Bachman” as if she’s working through a bite of something unpleasant.
  • Also in fun callbacks, where Googling “Russ Hanneman” led to mentions of douchebag and sexual harassment lawsuit, doing the same for “Jack Barker” only brings up success stories and cancer charities.
  • “Jesus Christ. He’s the CEO of the world, ever heard of him?”
  • “You’re the belle of the ball, and these are all your swains hoping for a glimpse of ankle.”
  • “Richard, I’m not asking you to spoon with the guy or even fork him. … Forking is when you use your dick and your two lower legs to stab him in the torso.”

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