When Silicon Valley premiered last week, many publications—including this one—drew parallels between it and its fellow HBO comedy Entourage. It’s not an unfair comparison to make, as both are shows about a group of friends trying to make it big in a cutthroat industry, constantly surrounded by money and people who are made a bit crazy because of that money. (More problematically, there’s the fact that both shows fail the Bechdel test and have a minimal at best female presence.) Certainly HBO would like this to be another Entourage in terms of longevity—and the strong ratings for the premiere are the first step in that direction—but for those who remember how Entourage became an awful show and then an existential death march toward a movie that may or may not exist and may or may not be a microcosm of existence, there’s hope that the show is aiming for higher things.
Encouragingly, there’s at least one way Silicon Valley moves past those comparisons early on. Entourage became a parody of itself by the end with how well things kept working out for its main characters, but in its second episode Silicon Valley is quick to dismiss any such suggestions that Richard Hendrix will enjoy as charmed a life as Vincent Chase. Within the span of “The Cap Table” he finds himself paying for a stripper he didn’t order, humiliated in front of his prime investor, forced to fire his best friend, betrayed by said best friend, realizing the company he’s placed all hope in doesn’t technically exist, and his brilliant idea is being dissected by his former employer. If the pilot built up his hopes “The Cap Table” is all about shattering them, or at least forcing him to figure out what those hopes are built on.
The biggest illustration of how the rags-to-riches story has a lot more time to spend in rags comes up right away with the Pied Piper launch party. It’s the antithesis of the liquid shrimp/Kid Rock party that opened the series, indistinguishable from a quiet night at home—at least until Erlich calls in a stripper named Mochaccino as entertainment and the boys have a hard time being entertained. I’m not wild about how it feeds into the stereotype about awkward nerds, but their various refusals for her services flesh out each of the characters. Gilfoyle refuses her on moral grounds (“I entice the flesh, I don’t pay for it”), Dinesh first shook hands with a woman as a teenager and is mortified at the idea of having an erection around his housemates, and Big Head is so discombobulated by the experience he winds up saying he loves her.
That embarrassment is only temporary for Richard, while the embarrassment he feels in front of Peter Gregory the next morning is potentially catastrophic. Richard and Erlich enter his office ready to get down to business, only it turns out Peter has a fundamentally different definition of business: the correct one. Peter came across as a white knight in the pilot, but he’s clearly sharper than his distant way of speaking and miniscule car would indicate, and he demands to see a full business plan within 48 hours or the seed money isn’t happening. It’s a great moment for Christopher Evan Welch, channeling the fussiness he played so well in Rubicon in a completely different way, putting Richard so ill at ease he tries drinking from an empty cup. (It’s a less great moment for Amanda Crew as Monica, who’s the closest thing to a female lead Silicon Valley has and only gets one line this episode.)
Richard, whose knowledge of business plans is limited only to the Wikipedia entry (on par with Skyler White’s early approach to money laundering), is forced to ask for help from an unlikely ally, former Hooli executive Jared Dunn. Erlich is instantly enraged by this intrusion, but the show is clearly better off with Zach Woods as part of the Pied Piper ensemble. Rather than being egotistical or a sycophant, Jared is as awkward as the rest of them, self-deprecating about his own nerdy appearance (“My uncle used to say ‘You looked like someone just starved a virgin to death’” is the best line of the episode) and deferential to a distressing amount. His knowledge of business also earns him early respect from Gilfoyle and Dinesh, a welcome move as it makes him less of a mocked outsider and more of a Lane Pryce figure to the startup. Yes, Erlich tries to get rid of him at every turn, but that’s more of an internal power struggle than making Jared a punching bag, and it’s good to see him mesh so early.
However, with Jared added to the mix that means there’s some dead weight for Pied Piper to get rid of, which means bad news for Big Head. This development probably isn’t a surprise to anyone who looked at the promotional poster and noticed that it was Woods instead of Josh Grener featured in the starting lineup, but that doesn’t make the import of the decision any less difficult for Richard. It’s easy for the rest of the house however, as the geek chorus of Dinesh and Gilfoyle point out he’s got no special skills and even Big Head can’t muster much of an argument. (Gilfoyle’s takedown is the harshest: “He’s as useless as Mass Effect 3’s multiple endings.”) It’s the escalation of the scene that makes it the episode’s funniest: the reveal Big Head can hear everything they said about him in the next room, he walks out of the house in defeat, the insults continue, he comes back in to get his water bottle, and the insults continue with him still in the house and within earshot.
The decapitation of Big Head exhibits the comic beats Silicon Valley wants to land, but it also exposes the show’s empathetic side. Erlich spends the entire episode as the simultaneous angel and devil on Richard’s shoulders, urging that he’s got to morph into an asshole with a spine if he wants to succeed in this world, a transformation Richard resists. The scene where the two friends walk home from Mochaccino’s apartment is an earnest moment where Big Head admits he’s not cut out for this life, spending all his time developing an app that even strippers are creeped out by. Richard, if not exactly an innocent, is someone who’s clearly in over his head, and it’s an open question if he’s got the same strength/ruthlessness/oddness to become the next Gavin Belson or Peter Gregory.
It’s the subversion of Richard’s final decision that works as the episode’s best character beat. Richard announces to the group that it’s his company and if he says Big Head stays he stays—only for Big Head to say he’s not staying. Gavin reveals himself to be a more malicious foe than he appeared in the pilot, making Big Head an offer he can’t refuse for a cushy promotion in exchange for leaving Pied Piper for good, and the moment takes all the wind out of Richard’s sails and proves Thomas Middleditch can play apopleptic with ease. It transforms into a harsh lesson for Richard, and one he’s clearly taking to heart as he announces he’s keeping Big Head’s shares in the company and pulls Jared aside to finalize the business plan on his terms. “What an asshole,” Erlich says as he stomps off, with more pride in his voice than anyone’s ever spoken that phrase.
That thick skin is coming up not a moment too soon for Richard, as Gavin hiring Big Head was only the first step in his quest to destroy Pied Piper: the “brogrammers” Richard showed his site to have pulled out his algorithm and are taking it apart to develop Nucleus, a program that emulates just enough of his code not to get sued. And insult to injury, even though he’s secured the seed money from Peter he can’t cash the check because it’s made out to Pied Piper, a business that doesn’t even exist yet. “The Cap Table” leaves things at a lot less stable point than “Minimum Viable Product” did, but it reassures viewers starting out that there’s as much humor in Richard’s failures as there are in his successes.
- Vulture ran a terrific piece last week on the life and career of Christopher Evan Welch, which only accentuates how bittersweet his excellent performance in this show is.
- Best we’re-in-Silicon-Valley joke of the episode: a stripper has Square to accept payment. Richard: “Do you take AmEx?” Mochaccino: “Damn right I do.”
- The fact that Gilfoyle has a girlfriend who’s coming to town in a couple weeks could be comic gold that I hope the fourth or fifth episode takes advantage of. Candidates for who should play the part? My pick is based entirely on love of partial Party Down reunions, but I would lose my fucking mind if Lizzy Caplan had the time in her Masters Of Sex schedule to stop by.
- The varied apps Erlich owns 10 percent of thanks to the incubator are turning into an excellent running gag. This week we learn he owns stakes in an app that locates water fountains. Peter is unimpressed. (Also speaking of Erlich, thanks to screener quality I missed the sight gag last week that he owns a car half-covered with Aviato logos, which is even funnier because we still have no idea what Aviato even was.)
- The first woman Dinesh shook hands with was a postman lady. Not a post-man lady, just to be clear.
- “You know, in the state of California you can kill a man for entering your house! We’ll call you when we want pleated khakis.”
- “Him getting points would be a big ‘fuck you’ to all of us. But he’s a great guy.”
- “I made a perverted, useless, sexist thing.”
- “If you’ll excuse me, I have to go lock down a motherfucking business plan.”