T.J. Miller (Image: HBO)

I’ve spent a lot of time in these reviews criticizing Silicon Valley for its inability to commit to making any major changes (and did so as recently as last week) but now it looks like real life is forcing change on the show. Last week we received the unsurprising news that HBO picked up a fifth season of the series, and only a few hours later came the surprising news that when it returns, T.J. Miller won’t be returning with it. The terms were vaguely described as “mutual,” and Miller’s built such a footprint outside the show—an upcoming HBO special, a Comedy Central series, various movie roles, sabering bottles of champagne, slapping Uber drivers—that his time could be more limited and his salary demands much higher than the others.

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This is a move that could have mixed results for the show. On one hand, Erlich Bachman is a character that the Silicon Valley writers have had trouble finding a use for in the last two seasons. He’s always been on the outside of Pied Piper looking in, there because of his 10 percent clause for incubator lodging rather than any real technical skill. As the company’s climbed to legitimacy and bigger names like Russ, Jack, and Gavin have been more vital to the story’s development, Erlich’s been pushed to tangential narratives and interaction with less compelling characters like Big Head and Jian-Yang. He’s bounced from frustrated pitch man to aspiring venture capitalist to head of PR to majority investor to frustrated pitch man, sometimes not even needing a full episode to make the change.

However, the fact that he doesn’t fit in is also the biggest argument for why this is a loss for the show. In an ensemble full of characters who specialize in twitchy or deadpan reactions, Erlich’s bombastic braggadocio is a comedic hot sauce that frequently gives Silicon Valley the performative or narrative jolt it needs. Miller is an artist of profanity who can take anything the writers give him and elevate it to the purest form—his round of VC negging in “Sand Hill Shuffle,” his epic retelling of a pitch in “The Uptick”—and game to take the character to any high or any low if it’ll get a laugh. That brazen energy is something Silicon Valley can take for granted, and not something they can easily replace.

Coincidentally, the first episode of Silicon Valley since the news broke is a prime example of this dichotomy. “Customer Service” sees the latest incarnation of Pied Piper struggling to find corporate partners in the wake of Gavin’s departure, pushing them to sell their product as a hypothetical and partner with an insurance company. However, the CTO of said company is Dan Melcher, last seen punching Erlich in the face at the end of season one’s “Proof Of Concept” for a second round of cuckolding. It’s a great mix of subverting expections, from Dan’s reveal placing the deal into DOA status and Erlich’s keen eye suddenly realizing how he can tug on the other man’s insecurities.

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Erlich gets them over the hurdle, but that doesn’t change the fact he created the hurdle in the first place, and Richard swiftly moves to cut him out of the negotiations. Here, “Customer Service” takes the meta fact of Erlich having nothing to do on the show and turns it into the punchline. Richard and the team call out his lack of a job in a way that leaves him without any easy answer: “I run a thriving incubator! … It is thriving. … Isn’t it? … Fuck you guys!”. Then he tries to finagle his way into Laurie and Monica’s new firm, only to be told politely—by Laurie’s standards at least—that he’s the last person anyone would look to as a role model for financial stability. It’s the balance of constant confidence and wounded ego that keeps Erlich human, avoiding the cartoonish excess of Russ Hanneman. (Who appears early in the episode to chew Richard out and piss in Erlich’s car, in case said excesses had faded from memory.)

And then out of nowhere, he finds his way back in. Ignoring a Reserved sign on a coffee shop table, he inadvertently finds himself in the middle of a pitch session to VR developer Keenan Feltzpar (an impressively bearded Haley Joel Osment). With no idea of context, he behaves exactly the way you’d expect when a stranger pushes back (“Men aren’t supposed to grow tits, and yet there they are atop your little paunch”) and Keenan’s excited to see someone behaving outside the norm. His willingness to step forward and not care about consequences turns into an Idiocracy-scale upward failure, and his prior observation on the “frothiness” of VR tech in the market now gives him a prize to trade Bream-Hall for a seat at the table. All of a sudden, he’s gone from afterthought to player.

Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, Thomas Middleditch (Image: HBO)

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If these scenes explain why the show benefits from having Miller around, Richard’s narrative also explains why he benefits from having Erlich around. All the way back to “Fiduciary Duties,” the partnership between Richard and Erlich has been the spine of Pied Piper, the marriage of tech knowledge and pure bullshit necessary to succeed in the industry. (Said interaction for that partnership personified when Erlich tries to use flirting to get ahead in a meeting. Richard: “Can you please for once keep your dick out of the equation?” Erlich: “My dick is the abacus.”) And in their time together Richard’s absorbed some of that forceful personality, seen here when he pushes Russ away from laying claim to the peer-to-peer Internet idea and then when Erlich tries to remain part of the deal.

However, removing Erlich from the team means that Richard loses something valuable in Erlich’s willingness to be on the front lines. Erlich might be a crude jackass, but he can get ahead of these things and absorb the disaster on Richard’s behalf. Here, Richard tries to keep the conversation on tech with talks about the value of not settling and “leaping before you look,” but all it does is breed doubts in Liz about her engagement. Tragically (and comedically), Richard winds up doing the exact same thing Erlich would—jeopardizing the entire company with his dick—and does so without any of the self-awareness Erlich would have that could insulate him from the consequences.

Once again, “Customer Service” benefits from the subversion of expectations: the groundwork is laid for Dan to give Richard a black eye, torpedo the deal, and go back to square one. Except in this case, Richard’s complete ineptitude at anything romantic works in his favor, as Liz is so put off by the results of their one-night stand she decides she’d rather keep her engagement intact and their interactions professional. This is the first time Richard’s had sex in the run of the series, and any cheers for him are counterbalanced by the force of Liz’s underwhelmed reactions: “It was just all elbows! I mean, how many times did your teeth clink! And you moved your head a lot.” It’s a narrow win for Richard, and the closing moment in the elevator emphasizes how he’s not at all ready to deal with this sort of complication.

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The episode’s c-plot is a standard offering, as a bad early test of the new app leads Dinesh and Gilfoyle’s phones to merge and both men in possession of the others’ secrets. The two haven’t truly gotten into it yet this season with Dinesh’s rise and fall, and it’s good to see the two of them return to their roots and enter a position of mutually assured destruction, with Jared once again the reluctant neutral zone. It also builds to one of the most genuinely surprising sequences in Silicon Valley history, when Dinesh breaks the stalemate and it turns into a series of slap fights and phone annihilation.

Buried in all these conflicts are also a few looming time bombs that could be even more devastating than Richard’s tryst with Liz. They’ve sold their product but it’s an entirely hypothetical product at this point, and the early testing by Dinesh and Gilfoyle only proves the app does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. Even by their standards Pied Piper’s now completely bound to something intangible, relying completely on the promise of tech rather than the tech itself—and without Erlich playing a role to keep upselling and distracting from that. Can the company survive without his ability to absorb the blows, and by extension can Silicon Valley thrive without T.J. Miller bull-rushing his way through the staid image-focused tech industry? “Customer Service” proves both are difficult questions to answer.

Stray observations:

  • This week’s closing track: “You Came To Party,” To $hort.
  • Just tell us what was funny, Chappell, God!: Having failed to mention some of the best gags lately—Jared’s maniacal yelps, Gavin’s garage-in-a-garage—let’s make a point of doing so. The cold open with Gavin’s portrait staring them all down is hilariously paced (as is the reveal of Jian-Yang standing behind it), and the slap fight between Dinesh, Gilfoyle, and Jared is perfectly executed in how unexpected it is.
  • So many great Zach Woods bits this week, from his terrifying speech about having an intruder in his room as a child (“And then I realized that if they’re going to kill me, they’re going to kill me. Because he kept whispering that”), his endless support for Richard (“This is no time for false humility. You’re a catch, just deal with it”), and his startlingly deep knowledge of military strategy (“I felt like Gibraltar in World War II. I was crucial and inert”).
  • Monica’s back on the rise now, a named partner in Laurie’s firm with her own swag, a move that should give us more gloriously awkward interactions between Amanda Crew and Suzanne Cryer. And now she has enough authority to move the distressing human hair artwork from “Meinertzagen’s Haversack” out of sight.
  • Erlich’s requests of Bream-Hall: An office, an attractive assistant, paternity leave if that goes well, and an umbrella insurance policy if that does not go well.
  • Russ is in top form this week, between his rants about his and Richard’s shared idea and the baby metaphor (“First of all, my ex-wife is screwing the doctor the doctor that delivered my son and they’re suing for full custody”) and the running gag about his grandfather coming out. “Fuck you in the asshole! And not in the beautiful way like Grandpa and Pedro.”
  • “You don’t come off in that story as well as you think you do.”
  • Gilfoyle “Why do I have a photo folder entitled ‘Cool Hairstyles’?” Dinesh: “Why do I have an email invite for the Anton LaVey fun run?”
  • “And then it just happened.” “On the floor?” “We were like two wild animals.” “I’m sure it was magnificent.”
  • “You said the word gulp.”

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