Watching “Articles of Incorporation” for the first time doesn’t instil you with the same feeling of confidence that Silicon Valley demonstrated with its previous two episodes. It settles the show down into a format instead of spending time on establishing the characters and world, and that gives it license to be the most purely comedic episode yet. The problem with this is that the sense of humor has settled down a bit too, with the storylines for the week covering well-trodden territory and jokes. And then there’s the matter of one of those plotlines being devoted to paying the bills, which is a whole other BK bag of problems. On a second pass though (or if you’re just more attentive than I was on the first), a strong character thread does emerge, which buttresses the writing whenever it heads in unsurprising directions.
As implied by their conference room-buzzword titles, the episodes of this first season are structured around the individual steps of starting a company. The first two are all internal, as you figure out what your business is going to provide (an advanced compression algorithm), and who is going to be a part of that business (hello, Jared, adios, Bighead). The third phase, picking a name, is the one that finally brings your company to the attention of the outside world, and as has been the case so far, step three requires Richard run up to the edge of disaster, only to barely squeak out something approximating a win.
Having made his flag (Pied Piper t-shirts being the corporate equivalent), Richard’s ready to plant it for all the world to see, which means he has to start wearing his bossy-khakis in front of people he doesn’t share a bathroom with. As the only member of the company who actually likes the name Pied Piper, it falls to him to negotiate the use of it from Arnold, a salty salt-of-the-earth businessman whose irrigation company is already using the name. When Richard does manage to negotiate fair sale of the name for a $1,000 (in part due to Arnold taking pity on the poor schmuck, but also for Richard craftily pointing out that better compression programs mean fewer eyesore server farms on crop land), it’s the perfect mid-episode high to leave Richard on…
…which of course means that the deal, and Richard’s company will be put at risk when Erlich starts gabbing about the company online, and Arnold starts thinking he’s been swindled. It’s the most sitcom-y A-plot the show has done so far, which is saying something for an episode that’s plots all read like primetime loglines (“X goes on a drug trip.” “Y risks being deported. “Z becomes obsessed with [insert product]”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with using such conventions, mind you, it’s just that Silicon Valley’s humor and stories thus far have been more specific to the industry and the setting, and “Articles of Incorporation” doesn’t have enough of that specificity in its jokes or plot threads. A lot of the gags are telegraphed from a mile away because they’re too situation to let the uniqueness of the characters or setting put an original spin on well-worn material.
What I came to admire more about the episode the second time was how tightly structured the dips into sitcom cliche are, even if they don’t represent the show at its most original. Each scene in Richard’s story essentially plays out twice, once with him being successful, and once with him failing miserably. Yes, you have a pretty good idea of how the scene is going to play out when Richard goes to return a margarita machine to the boxstore employee he accidentally inspired to ruin his life, but the amount of story that goes into building that obvious jokes is impressive in and of itself. Similarly, the “everything that can go wrong, will go wrong” hookiness required to get Arnold to hold the Pied Piper name hostage comes from a logical domino effect, with each member of the hostel accidentally contributing to Arnold’s image of Pied Piper as a intern/illegal hiring mega-company that’s treating him like a hayseed.