Frank Masi/HBO
Frank Masi/HBO

This Sunday: Silicon Valley, Season 2

Frank Masi/HBO
Frank Masi/HBO

Silicon Valley returns for its second season Sunday night (April 12) at 10pm, following the Game of Thrones return. With a cast featuring recent mental_floss cover model Kumail Nanjiani, the show has changed a bit from its first season, and given the circumstances (see below), it's all for the better. Tune in Sunday night after you've seen what's going on in Westeros, to catch what's up in Silicon Valley. Here's a trailer:

Tragedy + Time = Comedy

In early December, 2013, actor Christopher Evan Welch died after a three-year battle with cancer. If you watched the first season, you know him as an extremely important character—he's Peter Gregory, the nutty investor. If you saw Synecdoche, New York, you might remember him from the funeral monologue. He was also in The Master and a bunch of other stuff. It's incredibly sad to see just how good he was on Silicon Valley—he stole the show, even though his health only allowed him to shoot five episodes. Now he's gone.

The show had to deal with that. It is the first piece of news we get in the first episode, and is a shock for Pied Piper, the fictional startup company in the series. It's a credit to the writers that they proceeded to do two key things: linger on this death, giving it due screen time and emotional weight (in a half-hour comedy!); and to cast the excellent Suzanne Cryer (playing Laurie Bream), in his place.

Passing the Bechdel Test

Left to right: Thomas Middleditch, Amanda Crew, Suzanne Cryer, talking business. Photo courtesy Frank Masi/HBO.

I am pleased to report that Silicon Valley now passes the Bechdel Test, in episode one of season two.

For those of you who aren't aware, the test is very simple: We must see two named female characters speak to each other about anything other than a man. That's it. In season one, this didn't happen. Why? Maybe because there was only one female series regular (Amanda Crew playing Monica), or perhaps because Silicon Valley (the place and the show) are largely boys' clubs. But as Cryer arrives as a new series regular (in the same office as Crew), the show gets right down to business and puts those characters together in a room to have conversations about business.

Amusingly, the writers are completely aware that reviewers like me are looking for this test to be passed, so they write the women's dialogue to be almost exclusively about other men (the deceased Peter Gregory, the boys at Pied Piper, and so on), but they do manage to slip in actual, legit dialogue about their careers that means we can check the box and, just maybe, move on from this whole thing. Good job, Silicon Valley. Thank you for listening, and I'm looking forward to the next female season regular (hinted at in a Twitter Q&A).

Child-Men Behaving Badly

Left to right (foreground): Martin Starr, Zach Woods, Kumail Nanjiani, out of their element. Photo courtesy Frank Masi/HBO.

The bulk of early season two for Silicon Valley is, much like the first, about a bunch of child-men trying to navigate various business and personal challenges that are beyond their emotional abilities. This is, let's be frank, hilarious. Early on, the issue is how they'll get funding for their company, now that the money guy has died. Later, the key issue is how a bunch of guys who have trouble communicating and cooperating can run a company together. This is delicious, in part because I have seen startups firsthand, trying to get their acts together—albeit not with such amped-up-for-TV-comedy guys—but it's surprisingly true to life.

Mike Judge is really good at showing characters who can't express their feelings properly, or who are so repressed that they eventually explode. See, for instance, Milton in Office Space. Or almost every male character except Bobby in King of the Hill. King of the Hill is a terrific parallel, as the group of beer-drinkers communicates so much (and simultaneously so little) with their grunts, "yups," "dang 'ols," and "mm-hmms." Age them down by 20 years, give them some tech skills, put them in a highly competitive situation with money on the line, and you have these twenty-something guys in Silicon Valley. They're more articulate, but they still fail to express themselves maturely, because they are fundamentally immature. And that makes for great TV.

The key theme of the show, aside from these boys out of their depth, is the danger of participating in a culture you don't understand. In the first episode, it's all about investment—how much money should be invested in the company, how does that all work, what are the perils of gaining and losing money, who can be trusted, all that. But ultimately, Silicon Valley is about trying to fake it until you make it, I think we can all relate to that. If you enjoy often-crude humor, fine writing, and excellent acting (particularly from Cryer and Thomas Middleditch, who plays Richard Hendricks), this show is a treat to cap off your Sunday evening.

Where to Watch

The second season of Silicon Valley debuts on Sunday, April 12 at 10:00-10:30pm ET/PT, directly after the season debut of Game of Thrones. It's on HBO, and I'm going to watch it on HBO NOW, a service I've been wanting for a decade. Goodbye, cable! Hello, streaming! (Note: Apparently HBO NOW is limited at launch to Apple devices, with a focus on the Apple TV; it should roll out more broadly in a few months. If you have HBO GO or, you know, HBO on cable, that all works too.)

Pop Culture
Wise Quacks: A History of the Rubber Duck

In the middle of a raging storm in 1992, a cargo ship carrying a huge assortment of vinyl toys tipped over. Descending into the Pacific were nearly 29,000 tub playthings, including untold thousands of rubber ducks. Bobbing and drifting, the tiny yellow birds took weeks, months, and years to wash ashore in Hawaii, Maine, Seattle, and other far-flung locations. Their journeys were able to tell oceanographers crucial information about waves, currents, and seasonal changes—what one journalist dubbed “the conveyor belt” of the sea.

The humble little rubber duck had, once again, exceeded expectations.


Aside from soap, shampoo, and towels, there may be no more pervasive an item in a kid-occupied bathtub than the rubber duck, a generic aquatic toy that usually squeaks, sometimes spits water, and can be teethed upon without incident.

The ducks had their origins in the mid-1800s, when rubber manufacturing began to gain ground. Out of the many animals crafted, they were the most native to water and broke away from the pack. Families who used to make bathing a weekly event prior to Sunday church sessions would entice children to submerge themselves in the murky tubs with a duck, some of which didn’t float. They were intended as chew toys.

In 1933, a latex supplier licensed a series of Disney characters and made inexpensive bath floaters: The most popular were Donald and Donna Duck. While Disney’s brand recognition helped, companies looking to mass-market cheap ducks didn’t want to depend on a license. Sculptor Peter Ganine is believed to have been the now-familiar generic duck’s primary designer, patenting a toy in 1949 for a period of 14 years. Ganine reportedly sold over 50 million of them.

By the early 1960s, the vinyl ducks were free from patent restriction and became a bathroom fixture. They were cheaply made, cheaply acquired, and a soothing presence for children with apprehensions about being dipped into water. Any hydrophobia was eased by the bright yellow duck, who didn’t appear to have a care in the world.

On February 25, 1970, rubber ducks got their biggest break yet. On the first season of Sesame Street, Ernie splashed in a tub while singing an ode to his maritime companion:

Rubber Duckie, you’re the one

You make bath time lots of fun

Rubber Duckie, I’m awfully fond of you

Rubber Duckie, joy of joys

When I squeeze you, you make noise

Rubber Duckie, you’re my very best friend, it’s true

The song went on to sell over 1 million copies as a single and has been included in well over 21 different Sesame Street compilation albums. The image of Ernie playing with the duck was licensed for T-shirts, storybooks, and other merchandise that further endeared the ducks to child-occupied households.

The duck has since undergone some minor advancements. Some, molded to resemble celebrities or athletes, are a popular gift or marketing tool; others are sculpted to giant-sized proportions to bob in lakes during summer festivals. And while the toys now come in $99, Bluetooth-enabled versions, it was the classic yellow duck that made it in 2013 into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Additional Sources:
“Rubber Ducks and Their Significance in Contemporary American Culture,” The Journal of American Culture, Volume 29, Number 1 [PDF].

8 Surprising Facts About Bubble Bobble

by Ryan Lambie

Originally released in 1986, Bubble Bobble is a colorful platform video game with a fiendishly addictive two player co-op mode, which quickly became an arcade hit for Taito. Widely ported to home computers and consoles, Bubble Bobble marked the start of a long-running series of sequels and spin-offs that is still remembered fondly today. Here are a few things you might not know about the '80s classic that started it all.


Before Bubble Bobble, there was Chack’n Pop, a far more obscure platform game released by Taito in 1983. Some of Bubble Bobble’s ideas appear here in nascent form: a single-screen platform game where the player controls a weird chicken-like creature (the Chack’n of the title). The aim is to retrieve a heart from one corner of the maze-like screen before rushing back to the top.

Some of the mechanics are a bit strange: Chack’n’s primary attack is a grenade-like weapon, which is quite difficult to control. Nevertheless, many of the enemies and collectible items are identical to those in Taito’s later classic—the purple enemies called Monstas make their first appearance here, while two levels in Bubble Bobble directly reference Chack'n Pop.


Bubble Bobble was designed by Fukio Mitsuji, who joined Taito in his mid-20s and initially worked on such games as Super Dead Heat, Land Sea Air Squad, and the (very good) vertical shooter Halley’s Comet. For his next game, however, Mitsuji wanted to create something very different from the experiences commonly found in arcades at the time. Noticing that arcades in Japan were commonly frequented by men, he wanted to create a game that couples could enjoy together.

"Back then, women were rarely seen in Japanese arcades," Mitsuji later said in a video interview for the video game compilation, Taito Legends. "So I thought bringing more couples would help solve this issue. That's why I designed cute characters and included cooperative play in Bubble Bobble."


Mitsuji’s concept was unusual for its time. If two-player games existed at all in '80s arcades, they were usually competitive and violent. The four-player Gauntlet, released in 1985, warned that “shots do not hurt other players—yet ...”, while 1987’s seminal beat-'em-up Double Dragon ended with its players fighting to the death over the woman they had just rescued.

Bubble Bobble, on the other hand, had a far lighter atmosphere. While players could compete over the items that appeared on the screen, the game encouraged cooperation rather than aggression. Indeed, the only way to get to Bubble Bobble’s true ending was for two players to work together.


As well as the game’s central concept—which involves spitting bubbles at enemies to capture them before bursting the bubbles to finish them off—Mitsuji packed in all kinds of bonuses and hidden extras among Bubble Bobble’s 100 levels. The hardest to find are the three hidden rooms, which can only be unlocked by reaching levels 20, 30, and 40 without losing a life, and then entering a special door.

Full of jewels to collect, these hidden rooms also contained coded messages, which, when deciphered, gave clues as to how to complete the game. “If you want to get back your love of truth you must help each other until the last,” for example, hinted that you could only complete Bubble Bobble with two players.


There are hidden depths to Bubble Bobble that will only become obvious after long hours of play, such as the way items are linked to certain digits in your score. If the two penultimate numbers of a player’s score are identical—so, 5880, for example—then higher-scoring items will appear once the level’s completed. Similarly, rounds ending with a 0 or a 5 will also generate rarer bonuses.


Bubble Bobble may look cute, with its cartoon dinosaurs and bouncy theme tune, but it’s also a tough game to crack. Later levels can only be completed by mastering tricky techniques, like riding on bubbles to get out of otherwise inescapable pits. The cruelest twist comes at the end, where a single player will be told, after 100 levels of action, to “come here with your friend.”

Even in two-player mode, the game has to be completed twice in order to see the true ending; get through the first 100 levels, and “Super Mode” is unlocked, where the same 100 levels are made faster and more difficult to complete. At a time where most games either didn’t have a conclusion, or concluded with a simple “Congratulations!” message, Bubble Bobble’s multiple endings were quite unusual. And the ending you’re rewarded with when completing the Super Mode is very strange indeed...


The plot of Bubble Bobble sees its two brothers, Bubby and Bobby, turned into bubble-blowing dragons, while their girlfriends have been kidnapped by the evil Baron von Blubba. Completing the game once reveals what’s called the “Happy End,” where the heroes are reunited with their girlfriends and turned back into humans. But complete the game’s Super Mode, and you’re treated to an unexpected twist: the huge boss you’ve just defeated—the hooded, bottle-throwing Super Drunk—is revealed to be Bubby and Bobby’s parents, who must have been transformed by the same grim magic that turned the heroes into dragons. It’s a surreal—and even quite dark, depending on your interpretation—ending to a classic game.


The popularity of Bubble Bobble quickly made it one of the most widely-ported games of its era. It appeared on such computers and consoles as the ZX Spectrum, the Amiga, the NES, and Sega Master System—even the Game Boy got its own monochrome, handheld version of the game. Bubble Bobble’s success also prompted Taito to create a string of loose sequels and spin-offs, including Rainbow Islands, Parasol Stars and Bubble Bobble Symphony. The spin-off series are still going strong, with recent installments hitting the Nintendo DS, Wii, and Xbox in recent years.

But Mitsuji himself only worked on the first sequel to Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands (1987), a wonderful single-player platform game that differed wildly from its predecessor in terms of mechanics and pace. Mitsuji also created three other games for Taito— Syvalion, Darius II, and Volfied—before he left the company in the early 1990s. His last game came in 1991—an obscure yet delightful platform puzzler called Popils for the Sega Game Gear, which contained much of the elegant simplicity of Bubble Bobble.

For the remainder of his life, Mitsuji taught game design, before he passed away at the tragically young age of 48 in 2008. It was a sad loss for the video game industry, for sure, but his most famous creation delighted a generation of players with its lighter-than-air action. More than 30 years later, Bubble Bobble remains an out-and-out classic.


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