“We’re really excited to be in business with you guys!” says Silicon Valley’s hero Richard (Thomas Middleditch), the founder of the now-struggling compression start-up Pied Piper. It would be a lot more elating if he didn’t have to say it over and over, less as a confirmation than a desperate wish. The second season of Mike Judge’s HBO tech sitcom starts on a moment of triumph, with Richard and his friends/employees/housemates being courted on a baseball diamond by a venture-capital firm that wants to buy their company and monetize their creation. “If you can’t enjoy this many people kissing your ass at this level, there must be something wrong with you,” says Richard’s partner Erlich (T.J. Miller). But Erlich has good reason for feeling discomfort. There’s a reason why none of the gang’s success feels real: So far, it’s really not.
Season two of Silicon Valley bears strange and surely unintentional similarities to season five of Game of Thrones, which debuts the same night on HBO. It’s about the complications and disappointments that accompany the rise of power, and the compromises and occasional debasements required to gain and keep it, as well as the realization that an opponent you thought you’d vanquished might in fact just be resting and regrouping. Richard and Erlich start the premiere in the fabled catbird seat, courted by so many venture-capitalist firms that they can afford to try to get each one’s price up by playing hard-to-get. Erlich calls this “negging,” after a phrase popularized by men trying to pick up women: Undermine the target’s confidence to make her more responsive to your advances. As is often the case, Erlich takes this strategy to extremes, heaping invective on the people holding the checkbooks, and in once case placing his testicles on a conference table (off-screen, thank Christ).
This all seems like a distant and preposterous fantasy once their former employer, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), slaps the Pied Piper gang with an intellectual-property-theft lawsuit, falsely charging them with trying to monetize a process they developed while working at his Google-like megacorporation, Hoolie. Gavin doesn’t really have a case and doesn’t need one; he just wants to tie up Richard and the gang in lawsuit-related red tape, bleed their bank account, make them unattractive to venture capitalists, and drive their asking price down to the point where Gavin can buy them for whatever change he found under the front seat of his Prius. This feels like a “two steps forward, one step back” storytelling strategy, not unlike what you’d seen in almost any other sitcom that has a rather slight story and needs to pad things out. If not for the droll and frequently profane byplay between Richard, Erlich, and housemates Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), and Jared (Zach Woods), Silicon Valley’s paralyzed feeling might grate more and feel too obviously like an attempt to run out the show’s storytelling clock until the writers can figure out what the next really good move is.
I’m not convinced that the premature death of character actor Christopher Evan Welch, who played Peter Gregory, has much to do with the feeling that the show is spinning its wheels in these early episodes. The plot seems like it would’ve worked more or less the same way if Welch had lived, and there isn’t much grieving onscreen; if anything the show glosses over his demise in an amusingly Seinfeld-ian fashion, turning his memorial service into a display of corporate egos (“He asked me about Jackson Hole, I asked him about Pilates,” a rival says, establishing intimacy with the deceased).
Suzanne Cryer fills in as Peter’s replacement, Laurie Bream. Both the character and the actress are excellent — at once reassuringly familiar and off-putting in ways that don’t register right away. Laurie is a vocal ringer for Peter, speaking in 1960s Star Trek robot cadences that would make her sound like the late character’s twin sister if the pace of her diction weren’t so rapid. (She talks at maybe one and a half times what you’d think of as a “normal” rate — it’s screwball-comedy delivery, but anesthetized.) It’s good that her casting gives the only female regular from season one, Amanda Crew’s Monica, another woman to talk to, but Silicon Valley still can’t seem to figure out how to go from straightforwardly acknowledging and sending up the beta male “brogrammer” culture (which admittedly is male-driven) and incidentally validating it by only caring about men. The jokes about brothers vying to be considered the “cool” sibling in the family, new-money start-up CEOs paying for sports cars and expensive haircuts to seem more masculine, and men creating apps that send the word bro to each other are great, and they might land harder if there were a few more women around to hear them.