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The Falstaff Of ‘Silicon Valley’

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It is impossible to write about Mike Judge without using the word prescient. His social commentary has repeatedly drawn out and illustrated trends hidden just below the surface of the times, and the madness of 2016 spawned new appreciation for his classic comedy Idiocracy. Judge has been at this game of insightful contrarian comedy for a long time, and one of the strengths of his work is the minor characters he’s created – particularly those featured in King of the Hill and Office Space – have become iconic representations of workplace idiocy, bureaucratic nonsense-talk, and crippling paranoia. But none of these supporting characters has risen to the stature of T.J. Miller as Erlich Bachman in HBO’s Silicon Valley, a role that he is, sadly, giving up at the end of the current season. The character is as close to John Falstaff as any we have in this current golden age of television, and his loss to the screen is a significant one – so much so that it is hard to see how the show will ever be the same.

Bachman is a larger than life personality who aspires to a particular form of Silicon Valley greatness, yet time and again his vices lead to a string of ignominious failures. The frame is that Bachman created a company, Aviato, that was mildly successful. (Eventually we learn that it was a company designed to comb social media for mentions of Frontier Airlines and categorize them relative to their source, aiding in preventing viral complaints about the airline – Frontier purchased the company for what’s described as “low seven figures”). Unlike the other characters on the show marked by their focus on numbers and OCD tendencies, Bachman is an extrovert with a flair for making a pitch for any idea – he is a showman, a salesman, and a slob.

To this day, Bachman rumbles around in his Ford Escape drenched in the Aviato logo. You can actually rent this car for 49 dollars a day via a site that aspires to be the AirBnB of cars, which is itself a hilarious meta concept. The description of the car is suitably Bachman – you can read it here.

So why rent the Aviato car? Why on God’s green earth wouldn’t you, is the real question. Amenities include… Unlimited mileage because if you are driving a piece of Silicon Valley history, you know no limits. Leather seats that cradle your buttocks like the firm grasp of a loving mother. Built-in AC power outlet for any sort of device one could imagine. 6 CD Navigation GPS radio with 4″ display and ergonomic joystick-button selector that will make you feel like a god among men.

Bachman imagines himself a figure of some stature, but the reality is that he is just another stoner in the Valley, albeit one with a little more money to his name and a skill for bawdy humor. He has turned his house into an “Incubator” – surrounding himself with more talented coders and more inspired nerds. It is an approach he frames as mentorship, but others recognize as a degree of desperate loneliness and a hope that he can establish his relevance with some ill-defined achievement of significance. In a TV era full of loner anti-heroes, Bachman is someone who does not like to be alone.

What limits Bachman are his appetites. Where Falstaff had his sack, Bachman has his weed – when seeking to come up with a new name for their company, he goes into a shroom-induced fugue state that leaves him sitting in a men’s room all night, chanting “Making the world a better place” to himself. At the end of the first season, Bachman cannot help himself but chase after a key figure’s second wife after cuckolding him with his first – you can see what that leads to at the end of his presentation shown here (language warning), which was supposed to include pictures of “Gandhi, MLK, myself as an inquisitive child”. When given the opportunity to dramatically upgrade his incubator approach thanks to the wealth of a friend, he throws a lavish party on Alcatraz – Tiki-themed, of course. It bankrupts the company.

Miller is a talented stand-up comedian, with an upcoming HBO special of his own, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever come across a character that fits better with his approach to life. Watching this video from Viceland at his house, where he talks about awkwardly attempting to dance with Paris Hilton at a party, will make you wonder where the Bachman character ends and Miller begins. A microphone taped to his chest hair, he uses the word “status anxiety” about the tension that occurs at Hollywood parties where no one dances, and it is clear that this must inform his performance.

As for Bachman, it is his desire is to be described as visionary, one of the lords of Silicon Valley, but he wishes to do so without doing more work than would be required for a short TED Talk. He is fickle, ribald, and with a genius for insult. But time and again, though his lack of restraint proves his undoing, he never considers whether the problem here is within him and his approach to life – whether the people he’s repeatedly insulted or excoriated aren’t necessarily the reason he lacks success.

Bachman discards such doubts and falsity, and barrels onward with glee. It recalls Falstaff’s musings on Honour in Henry IV Part 1: “Honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if Honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can Honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is Honour? a word. What is that word, Honour? Air. A trim reckoning! — Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. Is it sensible then? Yes, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it: therefore I’ll none of it.” Neither will Bachman, and we will miss this character when he is gone.