SILICON VALLEY Review: “Patent Troll”

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I’m getting a bad feeling that is approaching some rough waters for the end of this year’s season. Episode seven “The Patent Troll” isn’t a bad episode, but it smacks of an aimlessness that hasn’t been felt in the show for a while. Last week I touched on the news that T.J. Miller would be leaving the show after this season, and while I’m sure that’s playing a part in my reading of the show, I think it’s information that is revealing the already widening seams. I suppose I’m losing my trust in the series creators and I hope I’m wrong and will be punished for it.

I know they did bounce back from losing a pivotal cast member in between seasons one and two so is there reason to be hopeful. But Peter Gregory probably wasn’t going to be used as consistently as Erlich has been so it may not be a fair comparison. With the loss of T.J. Miller we’re slightly changing the whole DNA of the show. Erlich has provided a certain role that won’t be easily filled by any of the other characters so I hope they won’t go looking for a pale imitation to fill in. Laurie is basically doing her best Peter Gregory impression and it works fine enough for the space she occupies. But Miller sells Erlich’s traits of braggadocio and confident ineptitude in a way that would be hard for another actor to replace. Much of Erlich’s character motivates the plot and the reactions of the other people on the show, so he’s not just a Kramer type that exists on some wacky periphery.

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The story this season has done its best to curb Erlich’s impact on the A plot by pairing him off with Jian Yang, but I was certain after last week’s episode when Erlich lands Laurie’s new company the hottest new tech start up that he’d be going out with a bang this season. It seemed like he was poised to take on some new role that might push the plot for one last Bachmann like hurrah. But this week they took the interesting choice of isolating Erlich again by not giving him a role in the fund and instead playing out some bizarre basketball B-plot that didn’t feel very authentic to the character.

The set up is that Ed Chen invites Erlich to bro-down with him and the other misogynistic VCs over a game of basketball. But when Erlich realizes it and then sees he might have to suffer playing shirts vs skins he runs away in humiliation. It’s a level of shamefullness we haven’t really seen from him and it was sort of sad to see. Jian Yang calling Erlich a “fat fuck” has always been funny because Erlich doesn’t believe him, or at least knows that it doesn’t matter as long as you control the room. It’s a sort of Donald Trump type of confidence and charisma but with an added dose of self-awareness and competence that keeps him going. When Erlich sees himself wearing a fedora in his convertible he knows immediately he’s not able to pull it off. But he also knows there’s a place to get to in one’s head and life where people won’t and can’t laugh at the fedora, at least not to his face. And it’s sort of endearing how Erlich doesn’t let shame or failure stop him from getting to that level of success where he knows he won’t have to put up with it anymore. He’s faking it until he makes it but his charm comes in the moments when he lets us in on that.

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So I was surprised that he’d want to ingratiate himself with the Ed Chens of the world and then be put off by playing shirtless basketball with him. You’d expect Erlich to proudly run on the court and act as if he’s the best player on the court. Anyone who’s played pick up games knows there’s always one person like that who takes on a coach type role to make up for their lack of physical prowess. Erlich has always shown in the past that the trick is to never admit defeat or fault even if everyone else does, because sooner or later if you stick to the story it begins to run in your favor. And I wonder if this is the beginning of Erlich breaking, and rather than having him leave leave in glory he’s going to wither away. As I write that it feels very Un-Silicon Valley to me, but I will still give the show runners complete praise in being able to subvert my expectations, so I’m curious how this plays out.

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Aside from all that though, I just didn’t find many of the jokes were landing at their usual level and don’t think the episode is as funny as the rest of the season has been. While it’s always a joy to see Andy Daly, his pre-credits scene with Richard is weaker than all the other openers we’ve seen with him. And then throughout the episode the set ups are there but the jokes don’t go very far. The smart fridge is a good gimmick for Dinesh and Gilfoyle and gives them something to do. And then the highlight is of course given to TVs habitual sixth man Award Winner Jared, who’s impression of a Bro-gramming VC is one of the funniest things he’s done on the show. Thomas Middleditch is a great physical comedian and that physicality really comes out in his meeting with the other start-up, but the whole patent troll plot doesn’t do a lot and feels like he and us as viewers are spinning our wheels.

It’s clear the show is going through some change and that may mean new growing pains. So let’s hope that that’s all this episode is suffering from and that there isn’t anything endemic to it’s new identity as it re-directs to a Bachmann-less universe.

TB-TV-Grade-C+

Season 4, Episode 7 (S04E07)
Silicon Valley airs Sunday at 10PM on HBO

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