There’s a non-scientific theory called “the sophomore jinx” that you may have heard of many times without being aware of its origins. It originated in baseball, the most superstitious of sports, and refers to the bad luck that occasionally befalls the second year of a rookie who has had a good first season. So it’s no accident that the second season of the Emmy-nominated HBO series Silicon Valley opens with a shot of AT&T Park, the home of the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. The baseball connection is not lost on folks whose mental faculties work by allusion, as many tech people’s brains do, including my own coder’s brain. This series knows we’re thinking about potential quality decline, and addresses it immediately in its first sequence.
This sly wink and a nudge from series creator Mike Judge serves as a comic, introductory setpiece for the uninitiated and a warm, welcome-back hug for the fans. Not for nothing does he torment Silicon Valley’s hero, Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), with the constant display of his confused mug on the stadium JumboTron. “Where is that camera?!” asks Richard in frustration, after embarrassing himself with his squeamish response to fastballs pitched by a professional MLB pitcher. It’s a meta moment; we, the viewers, watched Richard’s ascent in season one, and now everyone in Richard’s fictional world has eyes on him. His profile is as big as that baseball stadium screen: Everyone can see it, and anyone can aim a nasty pitch at his noggin. Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.
When we last left Richard and his band of merry men who work for him at Pied Piper, the compression algorithm he created had just won TechCrunch Disrupt. This, despite the underhanded machinations of Hooli head honcho Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), the nemesis for whom he turned down megabucks to pursue a less secure pathway that included maintaining ownership of Pied Piper. That choice put Richard in the capable, strange hands of Peter Gregory, an eccentric billionaire played by the late, great Christopher Evan Welch. Like Furious 7, “Sand Hill Shuffle” serves as a send-off both to the character and the actor who played him.
“Peter Gregory is dead,” says Laurie Bream, Peter’s replacement at the company he founded. She says it four times to Pied Piper’s leading advocate, Monica (Amanda Shaw), which is three times less than Dickens mentioned Jacob Marley’s passing in the first pages of A Christmas Carol. Laurie is all about efficiency, from the severe part in her hair to her manner of speaking to the way cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt lights her during her tête–à–tête with Monica. Is it just me, or was there a distinct difference in lighting between the two women? Monica’s hair seems to glow with the sheen of a shampoo commercial, while Laurie is bathed in a strict, no-bullshit lighting that’s perfect for her role as the new Peter Gregory.
Suzanne Cryer’s take on Laurie is not an imitation of Peter Gregory, but rather an evocation of that thing you detect when you meet someone who was mentored by a famous person. Though she has her own personality quirks and charms, you can still see, in action, what the student has learned from the teacher. I am glad Silicon Valley has upped the number of female characters, and I look forward to how Laurie fits into Richard’s world. On a personal note, dare I say that this computer programmer is in love with Ms. Bream? She’s like a Java class that never throws an exception. Swoon!
But I digress.
Of Peter, Monica says “he was the smartest, shrewdest, strangest man I ever met,” which, though true, sounds more than a little Manchurian Candidate–y. But potential problems are now brewing. With Peter’s death, his company can execute a key man clause. Erlich (T.J. Miller), the Steve Jobs to Richard’s Steve Wozniak (and 10 percent owner of Pied Piper), explains that Peter’s partners now have a legal option to take the money and run, leaving Pied Piper without the next round of funding.
This is why the Pied Piper crew attended the event that opens this episode, the “Stern Taylor Fall Classic at AT&T Park.” Pied Piper is now a hot commodity, and all the venture capitalists (henceforth known as the VCs) are looking to provide funding on their Series A financing. Sensing this, Erlich psychs Richard up in his inimitably vulgar style. “If you can’t enjoy this many people kissing our ass,” he tells Richard, “I feel sorry for you!” Later, just before meeting with Stern Taylor at their offices, Erlich claims invincibility, exclaiming, “We’re three-foot cocks covered in Elvis dust!”
Stern Taylor threw all this money around (it can’t be cheap to rent out AT&T Park), yet when Richard and Erlich attend a follow-up meeting to discuss money, the firm is rather dismissive of them, which throws buckets of ice water on those aforementioned, near-meter-long boners. Erlich is dejected, but Richard is livid, unleashing a tirade of abuse before leaving the office. After cussing out Stern Taylor, Richard receives a better offer than the one Stern Taylor gave at AT&T Park.
“They were negging us!” Erlich says.
To define negging, leave it to Jared (Zach Woods), our resident explainer. “It’s a manipulative sex strategy used by male chauvinists,” he tells us. It’s also going negative to make someone want what you have to offer, a perfect strategy for the exceptionally dickish Erlich.
“They wanna negotiate using rudeness?” he asks. “Well, they picked the wrong guy!”
Erlich’s actions push the valuation of Pied Piper into the stratosphere, but like Hooli’s original offer of beaucoup dollars in season one, a lot of zeros mask a lot of danger. When Laurie's offer counters the other VCs' deals, Monica begs Richard not to take it. If Pied Piper can’t keep up its earnings, it will quickly devalue and implode. Next week’s episode title “Runaway Devaluation” hints ominously at exactly that. Stay tuned!
“Sand Hill Shuffle” ends with the funeral of Peter Gregory, whose demise featured freaked-out hippos, misplaced gunfire, and a weak heart. The funeral gives shout-outs to two obscure moments from season one: Gavin's eulogy finally explains the mysterious youthful picture of him and Gregory seen in “Fiduciary Duties,” and Gavin also pays off the last line in “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency,” a line about lawsuits that made Richard puke.
Just after giving a beautiful farewell to his former rival, one that has Richard muttering, “Maybe he is human after all,” Gavin sues the hell out of Pied Piper, claiming Richard ripped off Hooli’s knockoff product, Nucleus. Richard gets the lawsuit message just as Gavin’s eulogy crescendos with the release of a flock of the universal bird of peace. Director Judge perfectly times the news with the angry face of Gavin shrouded behind the birds, as if to say, “Cry havoc, and let slip the doves of war!”
Leave it to this show to repurpose Prince’s weepy-ass feathered friends in this manner. I know doves are supposed to be peace symbols, but that’s a bunch of pigeon PR horseshit. If they’re so goddamn peaceful, why are they always appearing in John Woo movies just before people get riddled with bullets? Truth be told, when Noah sent out that dove, I bet it returned with a brick to bust a hole in the Ark. PR turned that brick into an olive branch.
It’s yet to be determined if season two of Silicon Valley will fall short of its excellent first season. This episode does a good job of summarizing character motivations, from Gilfoyle and Dinesh’s old-married-couple-style bickering to Richard’s uneasy flirtations with Monica and his love-hate mentor relationship with Erlich. I’m giving “Sand Hill Shuffle” four stars, but it’s really more like three and a half. Its pacing lagged a little, but I think we’re in for rollicking good fun once this season’s plot gets into full swing.
Matt Ross dukes it out with T.J. Miller for comedic ownership of this episode. Datageddon, Gavin’s term for the oversaturation of useless selfies in the cloud, deserves an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, and his feminine-product-based description of the latest Nucleus marketing video was the show’s funniest line. Put these two in more scenes together!
As a final aside: Since this is my second turn at recapping Silicon Valley, someone asked if I, too, feared the sophomore jinx. I don’t, because as any code monkey will tell you, we’re bosom buddies with the notion of potential failure. Every time you run your code, you’re ready for it to blow up in your face. It makes the successes all the sweeter, and the soldier all the more prepared for battle. Let’s hope Richard remembers that, and kicks Hooli’s ass.