When TJ Miller announced last year he was leaving Silicon Valley, Mike Judge's semi-satirical sitcom about tech, many wondered whether the show would survive. "Chief Operating Officer," the third episode of the fifth season, settles the question pretty conclusively: Silicon Valley is tighter and better than ever.
This is partly because Miller's absence gives some of this incredible cast's subtler work the space and light to shine. Zach Woods continues to be the show's MVP as Jared, but Jimmy O. Yang is spinning gold out of Jian-Yang's amusingly transparent schemes. Miller may have set a very specific tone for the sitcom, but the evidence that his character, Erlich Bachman, outlived his purpose is that the series is better without him.
As is usual, a plot summary of this show makes it sound deadly dull. Silicon Valley's new season has Richard trying to assemble a team that can build his new internet using the patent Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) gave him in a moment of Buddhist selflessness. Belson left Erlich in an opium den and returned to Hooli, where he's planning to a) launch the second iteration of the Box and b) destroy Richard by any means necessary. Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) pick at each other nonstop, but they pick at their CEO, Richard (Thomas Middleditch), even more. Jared continues to pepper his gentle advice with brilliant little asides. And the breakout star of the new season is Jian-Yang, who is plotting quite openly to usurp Bachman's property. The vaguely racist incomprehension with which everyone receives his admissions is the punchline: He's telling everyone exactly what he's doing, but their inability to listen intelligently lets him perpetrate the dumbest possible fraud unobserved.
What's making the fifth season work is how much it feels like a true ensemble. It feels like everyone is playing the same game: There's ease and momentum and consistency. It wasn't always like this: Silicon Valley started out satirizing the ornamental function of incompetents like Erlich Bachman and Nelson Bighetti — people who became millionaires through more luck than skill. There are limits, however, to what this kind of character can do in an ensemble show; Bachman and Bighetti's storylines had already started to drag during the "Bachmanity" plotline in Season 3, when they were marooned in a different subplot. This is something that Miller — to his credit — recognized in a frank interview with The Hollywood Reporter:
Erlich is just the person nobody wants. There's no reason for him to be there. He's conned his way into the whole situation. And so I thought it would be really interesting if suddenly they were able to rid themselves of him. If they had truly had enough of him, which is what they're always saying, then why wouldn't he just exit? What if they're really suddenly like, he's gone? Now what? Who does Richard have to complain about? Who is f — ing up their situation? Where is that confidence in the show? Where is that blowhard that everybody needs? [The Hollywood Reporter]
The answer, as of the third episode of season five, is nowhere: There is no blowhard in the gang right now. And it turns out ... the show doesn't need one.
Miller predicted this too: "Wouldn't it be interesting to leave at the height of the success of the show?" he wondered aloud. "Knowing that Kumail [Nanjiani] is brilliant, Zach Woods is the greatest improviser alive, Thomas Middleditch is one of the funniest people of all, Martin Starr is the deadpan comedian of our generation, what if I just stepped aside and let them continue the show and see what it becomes?"
It was a smart idea, and Miller's sense that "all these other characters will change and grow" under a different configuration has been amply borne out: "Richard [Thomas Middleditch] doesn't have a foil," Miller says. "Jian Yang [Jimmy O. Yang] comes to prominence. All these other characters will change and grow."
The surprise of the fifth season is just how joyfully it's letting the sitcom format "change and grow" too. Last night's episode, for instance, was a perfect self-contained rom-com, with Richard and Jared serving as the genre's star-crossed lovers. Every conversation Richard has takes on romantic overtones, and when the COO of another company effectively propositions him (offering to become Pied Piper's COO), Middleditch puts on an expression so magnificently coquettish and coy that I actually gasped and had to rewind and rewatch.
Jared remains one of the most beautifully written characters on any show anywhere, and Richard's long descent into becoming an evil corporate overlord is hitting some believable snags. The show's main flaw is the extent to which Dinesh is getting severely Flanderized (perhaps to compensate for Bachman's absence — his bad judgment was a good plot engine). Dinesh used to be sharp, but there are moments when his most recent incarnation seems barely functional and risks turning into slapstick.
But these are minor quibbles. Silicon Valley has a deep bench of tremendously funny actors, but most of them work with a subtler palette than Miller's. When he was onscreen, the broadness of his humor, engaging though it was, sometimes overshadowed their sharp but quiet work.
A lot of people read some of Miller's exit interviews as an exercise in bitterness; there are parts that are hard to read differently. But his theory of comedy seems right and even generous: "[I]t's an ensemble show, and if I step aside, the ensemble will each have a little more room."
For the sake of the show's balance and in the name of some forward progress, it was time for Bachman to go.