Silicon Valley Review: “Grow Fast or Die Slow”
Silicon Valley’s opening title card has always been short and sweet; a sun-drenched utopia of tech giants that evolves each season to reflect the quickly changing landscape of the tech industry. Season five’s opening title card comes after one of the shows weakest cold opens, feeling lifeless perhaps on a person to reflect the lifeless nature of the offices Richard has picked out for Pied Piper’s sublet.
But it made the eye-candy title card stand out stronger than it normally does, given it didn’t have to follow the usual hijinks of the recently departed Erlich Bachman. This vibrant juxtaposition absorbed the viewer’s attention more than it had any other time in the show, so much so that the subtle visual gag of the Facebook banner glitching into Russian characters was hard to miss.
The recent publicized actions by Facebook in conjunction with Cambridge Analytica during the Russian meddling during the 2016 US election was not a topic that showrunners had made apparent they would touch on before the series aired. But this subtle nod to the recent news adds a new weight to the normal lampooning of the cutthroat capitalism of the tech industry that Mike Judge’s show has always expertly deployed, but rarely capitalized on fully.
Richard has never been a truly likable character, but has at least been someone fans can root for as he takes on the fake tech giant standings like Hooli and their larger-than-life CEO Gavin Belson. Richard, while not fully toe-to-toe yet with his longtime rival Gavin Belson, begins to reap the benefits of his newly earned clout that he’s accumulated off-screen between seasons. The show does take a moment to explain to us this progress by Pied Piper has been slow but steady thanks to three nameless employees Richard and company refer to as “the stallions.” It’s the first time our protagonists have ever truly felt disconnected from the kind of worker-bee programmers whose place they stood in at the series beginning.
The episode sees Richard struggling to find a way to hire the employees he needs to have Pied Piper grow after Gavin Belson, through the sheer power of Hooli’s deep pockets, buys every relevant software engineer in the valley. Richard tries to bargain his way into acquiring two companies from wide-eyed tech CEOs in the valley chasing the same dream Richard has been through all of Silicon Valley’s goofs and gags. Richard is hauntingly now in the role of the amoral CEOs he’s battled with in the past, but Silicon Valley’s usual formula of Richard outsmarting his competition through innovative and comedic plans has always steered him back into the hearts of fans.
Except in the season five opener, Richard’s plan doesn’t feel as innovative or fun as they have in the past. Richard’s bargaining turns sour when it’s revealed that he’s not being fully honest with the other CEOs of the valley in his bargaining tricks. Ultimately Richard resorts to abusing the software of these CEOs’ company to make them operate at a level they can’t afford to. It’s made possible not through an ingenious technical insight, but rather through the sole might of his newly found riches. Sure, Richard wouldn’t be able to have figured out this scheme if he wasn’t a smart CEO himself. But unlike in past episodes where Richard barely got out alive with the little resources he has, Richard succeeds by the fact he now commands comparable financial resources to that of his nemesis, Gavin Belson.
This stark change in the characterization of Richard and the little screen time given for beloved side characters Jared, Gilfoyle and Dinesh mark a decided change in Silicon Valley’s thematic approach to its subject matter. Like Richard, audiences hailed and praised the likes of Mark Zuckerberg for being a cunning technical genius to make their lives easier. They wanted to see someone go against the system to accomplish something that on paper seemed like such a positive force. But like the recent news with Facebook's involvement in the Russian meddling of the 2016 US election acknowledged in the opening title card, the audience is beginning to see Richard for what he really is.
He’s someone who’s chasing a dream and doesn’t care about the steps he has to take to accomplish it. The audience saw Richard as someone who was a champion of the small business built by a hard-working, intelligent CEO. Now, Richard has become the CEO that can lean on the hard work of others and his money to achieve what he wants. Sure, Richard’s dream of a decentralized internet can be seen as a more objectively moral goal than that of Gavin Belson who just wants to increase Hooli stock value and get the credit for it. But if the means to do both are the same, aren’t the lines starting to get blurred?
If Silicon Valley can build on this deconstruction of the CEO narrative arc through Richard, while throwing fans a bit more Jared, Gilfoyle, Dinesh, and Jian-Yang oriented comedy, it has the potential to broadcast its most intelligent season yet with season five. But as this review more or less gets across, this was an episode heavy on character, plot, and thematic development. And while Silicon Valley is easily one of the smartest comedies on television, it should still be a comedy at heart.
Audiences familiar with Mike Judge’s work should feel confident in trusting him to balance his criticism of the tech world and make his audience laugh simultaneously. But season five’s opener felt a little too much like Judge was only spooning his audience insightful social commentaries when he’s never been shy of always complimenting them with just as many laughs. Only time will tell if season five can carry on the torch for HBO’s flagship sitcom, but the season five opener has definitely set pieces in motion to help it do so.
Chandler Copenheaver is a senior majoring in public relations. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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