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HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’ Proves That Life Can Be Stranger Than Fiction

Tech satire can feel like a boys' club. Tech satire can feel like a boys' club.
Tech satire can feel like a boys' club. Courtesy of HBO

Life can be stranger than any fiction the writers of HBO’s Silicon Valley could ever come up with, as former Twitter CEO and show consultant Dick Costolo has said in the past.

Case in point: The “Tables are like Pied Piper” promo video at the opening of the show’s ninth episode. The video is an obvious parody of Facebook’s “Chairs are like Facebook” ad from 2012, but some of the cast thought it was too absurd to be believable. That is, until they saw Uber’s equally ridiculous “Bits and Atoms” video from its brand redesign in February.

As the show’s third season inches to a close—one more episode!—we’re treated to a mashup of Silicon Valley anxieties and quirks. First, there’s CEO Richard Hendricks’ anxiety over the company’s very low “daily active users.” Though Pied Piper is doing great in terms of getting people to download and install its mobile app, very few of them are actually using the app regularly.

When Hendricks and Monica Hall, an employee at the venture capital firm backing Pied Piper, head to a focus group to figure out why so few people are using the startup’s app, we get another classic Silicon Valley pitfall.

“Who did you give the beta to? Your friends, engineers,” Hall tells Hendricks. “You’re trying to sell the platform to regular people but you never actually put it in the hands of regular people like them.”

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But of course, Hendricks doesn’t interpret this realization as a sign he and his team need to simplify the service. That would be too obvious, too… logical. No, Hendricks instead bursts into the focus group meeting, frustrated that these people don’t understand the genius of Pied Piper, and proceeds to spend hours explaining it to them. He even dispels suggestions that Terminator‘s “Skynet” could take over the world, despite a recent concern among the Silicon Valley elite that artificial intelligence could someday take over the world.

As Hendricks’s stubbornness continues, things get progressively worse. His team sets up a series of pathetically unsuccessful demos and workshops, while employees start quitting one by one. Even the ad agency’s solution to Hendricks’s problem is uninspiring: Pipey, the Pied Piper piper. For those old enough to remember, yes, Pipey is obviously a distant cousin of Clippy, Microsoft’s (MSFT) animated cartoon assistant for its Office suite of software.

Even the godawful Comic Sans font made an appearance as part of Pipey’s design. Needless to say, morale is low at Pied Piper.

“Face it, Jared. Being too early is like being wrong,” a depressed Hendricks tells Jared Dunn, Pied Piper’s business guy, citing a common Silicon Valley lesson. Many entrepreneurs over the years have seen their ideas fail because they were born before technology and consumer habits were advanced enough.

Meanwhile, Gavin Belson, the recently ousted CEO of Google-like company Hooli, makes a comeback. After his security chief tips him off, Belson gets a hold of a former Pied Piper employee interviewing at Hooli and presumably figures out what exactly the startup has been up to. Next thing we know, Belson has hired Jack Barker, who was briefly CEO of Pied Piper and pushed the startup to build a box it would sell to other companies. Belson and Barker present that exact same idea to Hooli’s board, under the guise of it being Belson’s idea all along. Soon enough, Belson is restored as CEO of Hooli.

And how is any of that possible, you ask?

We can thank California’s refusal to recognize non-compete agreements for this, making it easy for tech workers to hop around from job to job, even to work for a competitor.

For Fortune’s recap of the previous episode, read: HBO’s “Silicon Valley” Tackles Public Relations and Reputation Management

With that said, Silicon Valley loves its non-disclosure agreements, which prohibit former employees from revealing a company’s business secrets. Both Douglas and Barker pretty clearly violated those, but this is TV so we need the dramatic plot twist!

But across town, at Pied Piper’s makeshift office (inside a suburban house), there’s another fight to survive. Just as Hendricks prepares to tell his team he’s going to pull the plug on the company, there’s good news: the daily active users have significantly increased.

But as we come to find out, those users are fake. Dunn has been secretly using a “click farm,” which pays low-wage workers in countries like India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh for tasks like clicking on ads, generating social media activity, or in this case, creating and using Pied Piper accounts.

In next week’s finale, we’ll get to see how this ends.