Television will soon lose one of its most consistently hilarious characters, a mustachioed businessman with an inflated sense of self-importance and impeccable comic timing. I will miss the silver fox Roger Sterling, who has been such a great character on “Mad Men,” which ends in a couple of weeks. Good thing a worthy successor has arrived in the form of Erlich Bachman.
On paper, Erlich (T.J. Miller) of “Silicon Valley” is awful. Almost the worst, really.
Erlich is a pompous entrepreneur who runs a house that is supposed to serve as an incubator for aspiring tech types, but it’s not uncommon to suspect that his roommates/advisees are there more as his audience than as business associates. Erlich made some money in tech a few years ago -- not much, by the preposterous standards of the Valley -- so to keep his ego fully inflated, he has surrounded himself with people who’d be lost without him.
At least that’s what he tells himself. As events in the first few episodes of Season 2 proved, it’s easy to envision a scenario in which the Pied Piper team would do better without Erlich, whose crude, alpha-male posturing ticked off all the venture capital firms that could have helped the struggling company.
And yet, the firm’s loss was our comedic gain. Here are just a few of the gems from Erlich’s “Sand Hill Shuffle” fiesta of churlishness:
- “If they want to negotiate using hostility and rudeness, well, they picked the wrong guy.”
- “Your logo looks like a sideways vagina. I find that racist, don’t you?”
- “What I’m seeing is the human equivalent of a flaccid penis.”
- “The muffins smell like shit.”
- “One of you is one of the least attractive people I’ve ever met and I’m not going to say which one.”
- “There is a linear correlation between how intolerable I was and the valuation!”
Of course, it all backfired horribly, but the squabbling Pied Piper team has no plans to dump Erlich from their fledgling company, thank goodness. They’d better not, given that he’s one of the best characters on TV.
It shouldn’t be this way: Erlich, as previously noted, is a bit of a nightmare. Name a modern problem -- rich-bro entitlement, sexism, racial and cultural insensitivity, tech-world cluelessness -- and Erlich could serve as the poster boy for it. His advice is sometimes decent, but more often rash and unhelpful (“We need to do what any animal in nature does when it’s cornered: Act erratically and blindly lash out at everything around us!”) And yet, far from disliking the guy, I can’t wait to see what comedy gold he’ll unleash every week.
In part this is due to Miller’s deft performance, which makes Erlich more doofus than raging douchebro. There is a some douchebro in Erlich, no doubt, but Miller shows the earnest thought process that goes into Erlich’s diligent efforts to perform a certain brand of masculinity.
It’s that self-awareness that actually makes Erlich tolerable. When he decided to start “negging,” or insulting, the VC firms, it was a conscious choice, a piece of strategy. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and Erlich’s the one-eyed man of the Pied Piper team, most of whom don't know how to negotiate money, egos or dealmaking. He may be dickish at times, but it’s tactical dickishness for the most part, and much of the rest of his questionable behavior can be ascribed to hurt feelings, childish overreactions or bumbling attempts at bonding.
And he’s by no means committed to “negging” as a lifestyle because he’s just not that committed to anything, including hard work and making an effort. He’s traded Roger Sterling’s suit and martini glass for a bong and a kimono. He is, in some ways, living the dream, given that he does not actually do all that much at the office, which is basically just his ratty house.
Erich doesn’t have full self-awareness -- if he did, he’d get rid of that awful haircut and do something about his highly questionable facial hair -- but he is clearly someone who studied many different kinds of male culture so that he could pick and choose the elements that might help him get ahead. Underneath his silly and sometimes gross performances of douchery is a nerd who is just trying to survive in a cutthroat environment.
That’s actually what “Silicon Valley” is about much of the time -- different versions of masculinity and the strengths and pitfalls of each. Though the second half of Season 1 could be dude-bro-ish in lazy and dumb ways, so far Season 2 is consistently stronger and more smart in how it portrays both genders. In Sunday’s episode, a female engineer interviews at the firm, and it’s a relentlessly honest and sometimes amusing portrait of good intentions gone terribly awry.
Alice Wetterlund is a fine addition to the cast as Carla, and I’m glad “Silicon Valley” has increased the amount of time female characters get to spend on screen. This season, the women are actual characters with personalities; they no longer merely serve as bland props or plot devices. (The problem this season is the character Jian-Yang, who, so far, is an unfortunate collection of Asian stereotypes.)
Though it's doing better at addressing its female characters, at its core, “Silicon Valley” is about dudes and their efforts to negotiate its mostly male hierarchies, which are complex and confusing. As Erlich said, sometimes the secret of success in a skewed culture is knowing when to be an asshole. But when? Why? It's not an easy question to answer, but it would be easy for the show to make true dickishness seem cool or aspirational. Via characters like Erlich, Gavin and Russ, it generally does the opposite, while supplying generous comedic dividends.
Given its focus on various flavors of bro culture, it’s fortunate that the show has the kind of cast that can brilliantly illuminate very specific strains of male identity. There’s the nervous, shaky geekiness of Richard (Thomas Middleditch), the cynical, dry intelligence of Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and the hard-charging alpha nonsense of tech titan Gavin Belson -- kudos to Matt Ross, whose portrait of a self-pitying, driven executive is gloriously committed. Of course I can’t forget Martin Starr, whose Gilfoyle is the pitch-perfect love child of Bitcoin’s enigmatic founder and occultist Aleister Crowley. And I have to mention stealth comedy warrior Zach Woods, who is amazing as the earnest, guileless Jared. The delivery of his Julia Roberts monologue was a thing of beauty (“I’m puttin’ on hats!”).
Even in this crew, Erlich stands out, because the other guys are either too secure or too distracted to spend much time thinking about their identities and how they’re percieved. Not Erlich. He has time to come up with hilarious awful art for his house (the garage-door mural sequence is probably my favorite part of Season 1), and he also spends a lot of time thinking about how to be the kind of guy who will get attention and respect. Underneath that wretched beard-and-sideburns situation is a guy who just wants to be loved.
One of the smartest moves of the season was to introduce Chris Diamantopoulos’ Russ Hanneman, who makes Erlich look positively enlightened by comparison. Russ is the Ultra Extreme Evil Douchebro: He combines all the terrible parts of Erlich -- the status-seeking, the unthinking materialism, the loud arrogance, the patronizing attitudes -- without displaying any of the good ones. It’s fascinating that Russ can barely bring himself to acknowledge Erlich, who clearly wants his approval. It’s as if connecting with Erlich in any real way would taint Russ with the other man’s clumsily hidden and kind of endearing neediness. My theory is that Russ was also once a pasty geek who only wanted acceptance, and with the help of self-tanner, expensive jeans and a sick amount of money, he’s reinvented himself superficially -- but he’s only gotten more gross on the inside (“I got three nannies suing me right now, one of them for no reason!”).
In Silicon Valley, you can become a Russ or you can become an Erlich. I know which one I would want to be around, despite all of Erlich’s eccentricities and faults. (And on the plus side, his surprisingly deep knowledge of zoning laws comes in very handy in an upcoming episode.)
There are some significant tensions within the group in the next few episodes, but I believe Erlich, unlike Russ and Gavin, will never go full dark side. He is loyal to his crew, after his own fashion; it’s not just about fame and wealth for him. He actually does want friends, and when he does bad things and gets called on it, he is can express regret and at least try to change his behavior. He’s capable of learning in ways that that the comically frenetic and self-absorbed Russ is not (and kudos to Diamantopoulos for playing that new-money jackass with such delightful relish).
Silicon Valley -- the place, not the show -- has a lot of problems, but weirdly enough, the free-living, goofy and surprisingly open-minded Erlich may represent a way forward for an influential subculture that can often seem toxic, defensive and insensitive.
Erich is a piece of work, and I mean that in the best possible way. He is a vehicle for satire and he’s a complicated individual as well, and that’s a rare accomplishment. A lot of comedies try to create jackasses you love to hate, and it goes wrong far more often than not. There’s an incredible degree of difficulty involved, but “Silicon Valley” has created a character for the ages in Erlich, who wants to be a rich, acclaimed bro but hasn't entirely forget how to be a human being as he drifts through that questionable quest.