Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)

For all HBO’s “It’s not TV” pride at being above its broadcast peers, this Sunday has a lot of hallmarks of those broadcasters’ love of themed programming. On the same night as the second season premiere of Westworld, a show that throws the evolution of robots back in the face of their creators, Silicon Valley is also stepping into the world of artificial intelligence and asking what could happen when their intelligence eclipses ours. If it’s not an intentional plan on the part of the network suits, it’s one hell of a coincidence. We’ll know more later if on tonight’s Barry, it explores the main character’s disconnect from being human and the episode’s description of “Barry looks to hit the reset button” becomes literal.

In all seriousness though, the network forcing this choice on Silicon Valley’s creative team would explain why the plot doesn’t land with any of the efficiency that we’ve come to expect. Artificial intelligence is absolutely a real thing in the Valley, so it’s not too much of a stretch for the show to address it in some way. But while it tiptoes toward exploring ideas of nascent consciousness shaped by the pettiness and short tempers that have come to define the show, it backs away and turns that into just another near-disaster for the team to work around.

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The involvement of AI comes to the world of Silicon Valley as a consequence of Pied Piper’s success. One of Bream-Hall’s other investments, Eklow Labs, has burned through more than $100 million in funding to date and needs the network support that Pied Piper’s new internet can provide. Bream-Hall has been off to the sidelines for most of the season, the resolution of earlier conflicts about lawsuits and CEOs turning them into more of a mostly silent partner. Silicon Valley has a bad habit of forgetting half the people in its main cast are on the main cast—and are funny people when they’re used correctly—so it’s encouraging to see them still contribute and demand a quid pro quo for that contribution.

Heading to Eklow, Richard’s immediately thrown off his game by antisocial company head Ariel (Todd Louiso) and the company’s proof of concept Fiona (Suzanne Lenz). Kept in a room with Fiona, Richard’s ordered not to talk to her—which he of course does after a few minutes, steaming over being cut out of a Bloomberg News segment after making a “great” theme park analogy. (Hey, more Westworld parallels!) And given Richard wears his heart on his sleeve, Fiona picks up on every bad thing about him in one conversation: “Humility, self-loathing, pettiness, entitlement, immaturity, megalomania, infantilism, sexual inferiority, possible suicidal tendencies, a desire to self-mutilate.” The setup is there for Richard to inadvertently trigger a singularity moment with Fiona, his worst traits and subsequent dismissal nudging her to full self-awareness and make him the Miles Dyson to her Skynet.

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That’s not exactly where things go. Yes, the network does start to experiences outages and major issues within hours of Fiona’s incorporation into the system, but the reasons for that aren’t linked to anything Richard did beyond daring to spend time with Ariel’s creation. It’s not a crisis of AI, it’s another decision made by a prickly personality, more on par with Russ leaving a bottle of tequila on the delete key than HAL 9000 finding a mission too important to jeopardize with human error. And it’s not even a fun reveal, it’s just Richard railing at Ariel for being so upset at the idea that Fiona could learn apart from him that he’s willing to tank the entire network, and attacking him with lowest-common denominator insults like “handsy, greasy little weirdo.” It also doesn’t help the case that Ariel is so utterly a stereotype of the antisocial long-haired programmer that he fails to register as a character.

Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)

Silicon Valley does favor the slow burn though, so there’s a chance for this plot to salvage itself if Richard is correct and this disaster allows Bream-Hall to take possession of Fiona. Gilfoyle’s fears about integrating the technology with their system would be far more interesting if she’s right there in the middle of the office, offering her take on the long-standing Dinesh/Gilfoyle feud and potentially bonding with the similarly disconnected Jared. Maybe it will even turn out that it was Richard’s advice that led Fiona to vault into some form of sentience, and she’s the missing piece of his algorithm. I’ll reserve final judgment until the end of the season, but as introduced in this episode, it feels like a wash.

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Speaking of Jared, he has his own crisis of identity when he usurps Richard’s theme park metaphor with pedantic yet astute metaphor about the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894. That feature then leads to an offer to appear on Adrian Grenier’s “edutainment web series,” bringing Jared closer to the world of Entourage than anyone on the show. A great opportunity, but for the notoriously reserved Jared (“Like my foster mother used to say, ‘Donald, you have a face for the closet’”) it’s mortifying.

There’s potential here to get into some of the darker parts of Jared’s psyche; instead, it ducks that opportunity in favor of a quick sight gag. Looking to Dinesh’s old interviews from “Terms Of Service” in comparison, he decides he’s not cut out to appear on TV (“I look like an anti-Semitic propaganda cartoon!”) and he decides to get a quick saline injection to distract from his more problematic features. Much like Gilfoyle’s cat eye contact lenses in “Server Error,” this feels like a gag introduced less for plot reasons and more because the writers thought it’d be worth it to add some uncanny valley qualities to their main cast. Though it is hilarious to witness, especially as others react to it. Martin Starr gets the biggest laugh of the night for sounding monotone, horrified, and disgusted in equal measure: “Fuck you. Fuck you.”

Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)

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Gavin’s plot swaps artificial intelligence for emotional, and also helps draw into clarity a sense of unease that’s been growing with the character over the season. While Gavin’s previously had a mission that’s driven him in previous years—destroying Pied Piper, maintaining control of the Hooli board, working with Richard—this season doesn’t seem to have any of that. Previous episodes of trying to design his signature and making an offhand comment about a sticky bear feel like token “Gavin” plots, plugged in to fill time and give Matt Ross something to do. Here, his crisis of confidence comes out of nowhere, a jump that feels out of keeping from the typical arrogant confidence we saw only last week.

At the very least, Gavin’s plot does allow for the return of his self-serving guru Denpok, who’s now working as a realtor and sporting a mustache. Hoover and Denpok have sparred repeatedly over their beloved boss, and here they finally manage to come to a detente, agreeing to work as equals to manage their increasingly unpredictable cash cow. (Hoover: “He’s talking about opening an ice cream shop in Halfmoon Bay. And starting a family!” Denpok: “Like to raise? Himself?”) Bernard White is a funny actor so it’s good that he remains in the orbit, and it’s helpful from a narrative side to keep Gavin from drifting too far off into the wilds.

Gavin getting his head back on straight means that we do get the final reveal of the Box 3 Signature Edition, and said reveal—complete with Denpok’s confused reaction—winds up being as amusing to witness. AI may not be Silicon Valley’s forte, but there’s no denying they can land a dick joke when it counts.

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Stray observations:

  • “Face Recognition” is directed by Gillian Robespierre, director of Obvious Child and Landline, and her gift for capturing awkward moments comes through. The scene where Richard has to find a place to work where Fiona can’t watch him is a highlight.
  • Jian Yang has indeed fled to China to build a new new internet, but Laurie and Monica aren’t overly worried about an open-ended system taking root in a country as famously repressive as China. Laurie: “If you lose to that, Richard, look inward.”
  • Today in continuity bits where I’m probably the only person who cares: Richard’s CEO chair is now where it belongs in his Pied Piper office.
  • Gavin laments being behind all of the other tech moguls. Bill Gates and Paul Allen bought up the Pacific Northwest, Google’s developing Toronto’s waterfront, and Richard Branson owns all the best islands already. “I could go to Mars, but that fucking Musk will already be there!”
  • “You’ve got the hair of Giovanni Ribisi, the complexion of Timothy Hutton, and the eyes of Joni Mitchell. You’re like a Mr. Potato Head of beautiful people.”
  • “The sheer banality of it all is very upsetting.”
  • “That guy definitely fucks that robot, right?”
  • This week’s closing track: “Trouble In Paradise,” Girl Talk.

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