Zach Woods, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, and Thomas Middleditch.
After T.J. Miller, who played Silicon Valley’s bombastic tech incubator host Erlich Bachman, left the series last year under contentious circumstances, fans might be wondering if the HBO series will lose a step. Media outlets certainly expressed concern in the wake of his departure: “How Will Silicon Valley Work Without T.J. Miller?” wondered the Atlantic. “Is Silicon Valley Really Silicon Valley Without Erlich Bachman?” asked Vanity Fair. “How Will Silicon Valley Kill Off Erlich Bachman?” inquired Vulture.
But when Silicon Valley returns for its fifth season on Sunday night, it eases any worries and answers all of those questions. Those answers are, in order: yes, just fine, and it hasn’t killed him … well, not exactly, at least not yet.
The show acknowledges the absence of the frequently stoned, overconfident Erlich — who was last seen in a Tibetan opium den in the season-four finale — and makes it central to a running story line that becomes more significant as the season progresses. (I’ve seen the first three episodes.) But just as it has in previous seasons, the primary focus remains on the mistakes and mishaps that stymie the Pied Piper team as they embark on their latest, daunting venture: building a new, decentralized internet that puts control and privacy back in the hands of consumers. With all the recent news about Facebook, this idea resonates even more than it did last season.
In the first episode, “Grow Fast or Die Slow,” the central foursome — Richard (Thomas Middleditch), Jared (Zach Woods), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) — are moving Pied Piper into new office space and hiring a team of coders. But as usual, they do the absolute best they can to engage in acts of self-sabotage. When Dinesh and Gilfoyle aren’t arguing with each other, they’re dismissing every job candidate Richard tries to hire. (“His beard hair looked like head hair, and his head hair looked like beard hair” is a typical objection.) Richard continues to undermine his own authority at every turn. (Pro tip: When addressing your new staff for the first time, if at all possible, try not to vomit in front of them.) Elsewhere in the greater Palo Alto area, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) is back from Tibet and again at the helm of his Google-esque company Hooli, where it’s obvious that his attempt to achieve a Zen-like sense of peace didn’t stick at all. His initial mission: to undermine Pied Piper. His constant mission: to make himself seem like more of a tech visionary than he actually is.
In other words, Silicon Valley relies on the same patterns of behavior, storytelling formulas, and comedic sensibilities that it always has — and yes, that includes some juvenile, though admittedly semi-clever jokes. There’s a penis-drawing gag in the second episode, “Reorientation,” that’s classic Silicon Valley, and also suggests that Dylan Maxwell from American Vandal may have acted as a story consultant. But the series manages to avoid the same old jokes, because the writers are so deft at finding new, specific tech-development-world absurdities to lampoon while throwing enough curveballs into the plot to give each episode a sense of momentum. Every season of Silicon Valley isn’t just a new season of television. It’s more like a very smartly designed software upgrade.
What does feel somewhat different is the show’s attempt to more directly confront issues of inclusion. Silicon Valley, like the actual Silicon Valley, is populated largely by white men, and the show has been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes, particularly with regard to its Asian characters. When a COO from another company walks into the Pied Piper office in an upcoming episode and says, “Nice gender mix. Could use a little bit more color,” it’s obvious that he’s talking as much about the show as he is commenting on Richard’s staff.
Silicon Valley walks a fine line by calling itself on its own bullshit, particularly where Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) is involved. It becomes apparent early on that Jian-Yang, Erlich’s nemesis, is trying his best to slide into the Erlich role, most notably by attempting to prove that the Bachmanity founder is dead so he can become executor of his estate and his sole heir. He’s also hanging around the Hacker Hostel and inviting his friends to do the same, which irks the Pied Piper guys when they come home to find their space occupied.
“There had better not be a Chinaman in my bed,” Gilfoyle warns Jian-Yang.
“That’s racist,” Jian-Yang responds.
“Yes,” Gilfoyle replies, in the deadest of his deadpans. “I am racist.”
That’s an admission on the surface level, but because of the sarcasm embedded in it, the line implies that Gilfoyle — and, by extension, the show itself — finds such charges of racism ridiculous. Depending on one’s point of view, the exchange can be read either way, which is how Silicon Valley probably prefers it.
Race continues to bubble up as Jian-Yang becomes a more prominent figure in Erlich’s absence — an absence that, notably, doesn’t seem to bother Erlich’s actual friends that much. The fact that he’s missing won’t bother regular viewers much either. Miller was very funny and often inspired as Erlich, but as the seasons progressed, his character became more and more of a sidebar. He was never central to the running of Pied Piper, despite his tangential connection to it. That was the whole joke: This lazy alleged guru owned a share of a company to which he contributed nothing, and for which he frequently caused problems.
Jian-Yang has always been an outlier, too, but the initial episodes suggest he may be turning the tables on that dynamic and working his way into a system that had previously locked him out. When Richard tells his lawyer Ron (Ben Feldman) that he has concerns about the possibility that Jian-Yang could take over Erlich’s stake in Pied Piper, Ron asks, “You don’t have a bias against Asians, do you?” Richard emphatically insists he does not. “Yeah, I’m hearing something different,” Ron replies.
It’s not hard to imagine a power struggle taking place before the fifth season is over, which means Silicon Valley may not-so-delicately dance into and around the subject of race on a regular basis. I look forward to watching how the writers deal with it, and the wave of think pieces that it will undoubtedly inspire.