When HBO announced last month that T.J. Miller was leaving Silicon Valley, I took it kind of hard. Actually, this is an understatement: I’ve had personal friendships end that were less traumatic than the impending departure of Erlich Bachman. Silicon Valley is presently the funniest show on television, and Miller was frequently the single funniest element of that show. Given how heavy a lot of other top-shelf TV offerings are right now — to say nothing of how heavy the outside world is — I’ve come to rely upon Silicon Valley as a reliable source of joy. How could Miller leave a show that’s still getting better with nearly four years in the rearview? How could he do this to me?
Sure, I know it’s dumb to talk about a fictional character like this. But the likably buffoonish Bachman, a roly-poly rooster whose strutting Id couldn’t quite mask a deep well of insecurity, has evolved from the standard weed-smoking Apatowian man-child into a surprisingly soulful anchor in a very deep ensemble.
We’ve all known an Erlich Bachman at some point, and we usually grow tired of that guy by the time he finally stumbles out of our lives. But this Ehrlich Bachman, a man who once described a potential VC contact as “the human equivalent of a flaccid penis,” had somehow not yet overstayed his welcome.
At first glance, Silicon Valley without Bachman seemed inconceivable. “Maybe they could promote Russ ‘I Alone‘ Hanneman to head-blowhard,” I thought. But would that really work? Can Russ’ fastball compete with Bachman’s stuff when he hurled insults at Jack Barker for several minutes? Can anyone? I wasn’t sure.
Now that we’re a few days away from Silicon Valley‘s season finale, however, I’ve thankfully reached a slightly less hysterical conclusion on Miller’s exit. The fact is that Miller isn’t quite as essential to Silicon Valley as he was in the first few seasons. The show has evolved to a point where it can absorb the loss of one of its breakout stars. That’s not to say that it will be easy for Silicon Valley to move on from here, just that it’s not a death blow, but rather a matter of re-jiggering team chemistry.
In the early seasons of Silicon Valley, the premise was, “what if Jerry, George, and Elaine lived inside of Kramer’s apartment?” Instead of a big, goofy guy bursting into the lead protagonist space, the protagonist, Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), and his cohorts, Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), were ensconced in Bachman’s frat-like incubator. The focal point of the show’s comedic tension was between Hendricks and Bachman, who completed each other in a way similar to the partnership between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in the early days of Apple. (In this case, Jobs looked a bit like Wozniak, and Wozniak looked kind of like the younger, scruffier Jobs.)
With the story told from the perspective of Richard, Bachman was portrayed as both as an intolerable boor and as a charismatic swashbuckler with unlikely yet palpable sex appeal, like Han Solo as played by John Belushi and scripted by Aaron Sorkin after several tequila shots. He was a big, brash, and colorful character on a show in which most of the humor deals in the minutia of the tech industry, fertile yet mostly foreign territory for most people. What Bachman did was pass the audience a bong and say, “Don’t sweat the wonky details, just stick with me and this will be a blast.”
If that’s what Silicon Valley was, it doesn’t really feel like that show anymore. A primary reason why I think the current season is the show’s best is that the characters in Bachman’s orbit are no longer reacting to Bachman, but rather to the irregular beats of their own peculiar drummers. Hendricks isn’t just the awkward CEO who’s a genius at file compression, he’s a Machiavelli (or Zuckerberg) in the making, a guy driven by spite and resentment to finally achieve massive success, so long as he can get out of his own way. Dinesh isn’t just the nerdy coder, he’s shown he’s susceptible to Gavin Belson-esque douchebaggery after just a small taste of notoriety. Gilfoyle apparently has data on his phone that suggests he’s capable of being embarrassed, which means he might actually be a human being after all.
And then there’s the sweet but possibly psychotic Jared, played by the brilliant Zach Woods, who after this season is Silicon Valley‘s reigning champ when it comes to laughs-per-minute of screen time. Actually, I mean Ed Chambers is the champ. He eats Jared’s lunch literally every day.
As for Bachman, he transitioned this year from comic foil to semi-straight man in his dealings with Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang), a Laurel-and-Hardy dynamic that Miller has said he will miss. (One of of the biggest laughs of this season occurred last week, when Jian-Yang dropped Bachman off at the airport and literally threw his bags out of the car.)
Bachman has been increasingly segregated from Hendricks, Dinesh, Gilfoyle, and Jared, and spent much of the season flailing around for a new direction. It’s tempting to suggest that Bachman’s malaise reflected a deeper disinterest in a character who had perhaps runs its course both for Miller and the show’s writers. But as a committed Erlich Bachman booster to the very end, I’d argue that Bachman actually emerged as one of the show’s most sympathetic characters this season. As Hendricks and company have gradually grown pettier and more craven, Bachman has seemed comparably humbled and vulnerable, reduced to begging for a job at Bream-Hall and pursuing a doomed partnership with Keenan Feldspar (Haley Joel Osment), a younger and dumber version of himself.
Miller started out as an essential component of the comedy on Silicon Valley, and he’s leaving the show as the guy who supplied a fair share of the humanity. Can the show move on from that? Like I said, Silicon Valley‘s cast is loaded. There are more than enough funny people to maintain the level of comic ingenuity from the first four seasons. But it won’t quite be the same. It feels like Bachman’s character arc is approaching an organic end. Whether this marks a natural new beginning for Silicon Valley remains to be seen.