Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for May 28 through June 3 is “Customer Service,” the sixth episode of the fourth season of HBO’s Silicon Valley.
Working in entertainment journalism often means that you’ll know about a big TV show twist weeks before it happens, because you’ll hear that an actor is quietly looking for new work, or a writer will tell you off the record that something is coming. But every so often, one of those pieces of information makes its way out to the general public, which leads to a weird situation: Can you talk about what’s coming without a spoiler warning, since the knowledge is out there? Or what?
All of which is to say that if you don’t want to know a pretty major thing that seems to be happening in the last few episodes of Silicon Valley’s fourth season, tune out now, because some big news made its way to the world at large this week.
Specifically, actor T.J. Miller, who plays Erlich Bachman on the show, will no longer be part of Silicon Valley in season five, as confirmed by both Miller and HBO. Miller went into greater detail in an interview with Larry King Now, which suggests that Erlich will end season four in a place where it makes sense to wrap up the character’s story altogether.
My response to all of this is: Hmm, okay. My second response is: What? Really?! Noooooo!
Your opinion of Erlich likely aligns with your opinion of Silicon Valley
“Customer Service,” the episode that aired in the immediate wake of the T.J. Miller news, is a great example of why Miller’s particular brand of comedy — a kind of masculine bombast that mistakes loudness for intellect — has always made Silicon Valley work.
The series, like many tech stories, is obsessed with the relationship at the center of Apple, between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The shorthand for this relationship has become “Wozniak was the brains; Jobs was the charisma,” which is to say that Wozniak could build the machines but only Jobs could sell them. You’ll see versions of this dynamic pop up in other tech stories, like AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and the film Steve Jobs (of course).
But with Erlich, Silicon Valley created a version of this sort of character who exposes the loathsomeness of someone who gets by entirely on his own supply of bullshit. Erlich’s main success in life is that he bought a house, which he turned into an incubator, which he leveraged into owning 10 percent of other, better ideas that his tenants came up with, simply because of where they lived.
But Erlich genuinely believes he’s entitled to that 10 percent, not because of a deal his tenants signed, but because he believes he’s somehow so great that he inspires greatness in others. He’s the mythic version of Jobs twisted and bent out of shape to reveal the fundamental bankruptcy of anybody who makes a living primarily by skimming cash off the top of other people’s ledgers.
Erlich might sound like a deeply depressing character, but thanks to Miller and the Silicon Valley writers, Erlich is funny. The show is careful to always know just how far he can go with his horrible behavior before it yanks on his leash just a bit, and it’s smart about keeping him far away from the levers of the series’ power. He’s a man in proximity to power who confuses that proximity with actual intelligence, influence, and, worst, ability.
Erlich, then, is a comedic creation for our times, a guy who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and nevertheless persists as if everybody else is wrong (a characterization that may sound a little familiar). That’s made Erlich hard to take for many of the show’s would-be viewers, who cringe at his behavior more than they think the show is satirizing it. Erlich hits a little too close to home, in other words.
And Silicon Valley has struggled a bit in figuring out what to do with him over the past couple of years, given that he’s been pushed aside from the main action as the name “Erlich Bachman” has taken on a sheen of failure that makes other Silicon Valley types wary of him. Yet the fact remains that on a show where most of the characters’ comedic personas run toward “basically good but horribly hapless,” Erlich’s gleeful amorality functions as a welcome burst of raw comedic processing power.
Despite that, “Customer Service” shows why Erlich probably had to go
The biggest challenge Silicon Valley faces is that can’t ever let its characters become too successful, so the show changes too much, but they also can’t become so unsuccessful that they stop working together.
The engine of the show is a bunch of nerdy guys sitting in a room, having dick-measuring contests in lieu of doing anything. Silicon Valley is a show about how idiotic masculinity is idiotic masculinity in any context, and through that lens, it’s able to satirize everything from Silicon Valley culture to well-meaning liberal dudes who can’t stop being jerks in spite of themselves. (At one point in season four, Silicon Valley even has Erlich mansplain mansplaining to some women he knows.)
But with Erlich, especially, it’s hard to say why the rest of Silicon Valley’s core players keep him around. Richard, the show’s main character and the closest thing the show has to a genuine tech genius, has gotten better at selling himself. And even if he hadn’t, all of Erlich’s toxic relationships around the valley mean that Erlich hasn’t exactly put himself in a great position to better sell Richard’s company, Pied Piper.
What’s worse is that by now, Erlich knows what a burden he is. Before, when the character was basically oblivious to that fact, Silicon Valley could mine that obliviousness to comedic effect. But in “Customer Service,” he realizes that a key figure at a company Richard is hoping will invest in Pied Piper’s “new internet” venture is someone whose engagement imploded after Erlich slept with his fiancée.
And when Erlich tries to strike a deal with some other characters at a different company, they’re rightly unwilling to so much as look at him. Erlich has not proven himself worthy of being trusted, and on some level, he seems to know it. That self-awareness has kept the character from falling completely into awfulness, but the more the show leans on it, the more the viewer is inclined to wonder why he’s still hanging around.
Consequently, Erlich has been relegated to a bunch of B-plots, where he often indulges in some of his least amusing traits. He’s spent a lot of this season in a plot where he does little more than mock one of his tenants, an immigrant named Jian-Yang, via the kind of ironic racism that rarely works, much less in such large doses.
But even if the plots were stronger, Erlich is not the kind of character who thrives in a B-plot. He’s always straining to burst into the main story, Kool Aid Man-style.
I’m sure Silicon Valley will be just fine without Erlich, but I also wonder if it won’t miss the character’s clueless self-regard, his loud braggadocio. Silicon Valley is full of characters who slink away from the limelight, but Erlich doesn’t just step into the limelight. He steps into it, takes off his clothes, and does an imitation of a fire engine. That’s not to everybody’s taste, but it’s the type of comedic energy that Silicon Valley often sorely needs.