Silicon Valley punches its collective comedic weight better than most any other sitcom on TV right now. Mike Judge has larded the show with stand up talent (T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani, and Thomas Middleditch) and some of the most unique character actors around (Martin Starr, Matt Ross, and the late Christopher Evan Welch), all of whom play off of one another so perfectly. But what became clear in this week’s episode is that the lynchpin to this ensemble is really Zach Woods.
The actor and improviser has a very singular skill set, much of it based around his physicality (rail thin and pale with big, expressive eyes) and the soft lilt of his speaking voice. Yet, Woods has managed to use those seemingly narrow qualities so much to his advantage in his career. He shifted the dial just barely to capture the biting banter and sickening sucking up in a small supporting role in Armando Iannucci’s cutting political satire In The Loop. And, of course, there was his delightfully weird turn as Gabe in the last three seasons of The Office, a precursor to his work on Silicon Valley.
In these roles, Woods excels as the corporate lackey or the put-upon middle manager just trying to get through the day with a modicum of dignity. This makes him the perfect fit for the weedy Jared, the kind of office manager/PR rep that can’t bare to ask his Pied Piper co-workers to call him by his real name. (“I know a name is just a sound someone makes when they need you,” he tells Dinesh and Gilfoyle.) Or to stop calling him “O.J.” when they consider hiring another Jared to be a coder. He tries to turn every situation, no matter how troublesome, into a positive—even when his co-workers refer to him as “an effeminate k.d. lang” or “AIDS lady” or by the name of a former football star turned accused murderer. As he tells the engineer they do hire, “I’ve changed the meaning from ‘Other Jared’ to ‘Original Jared.’”
Woods has plenty to do in this week’s episode, at first, shepherding a bunch of strange potential hires through the interview process, including the other Jared who proclaims himself to be a cyborg because he is forced to wear a pacemaker, and then trying to tightrope walk through updating the staff on harassment policies when Richard hires Carla for the team. Woods nimbly dances through all the minutiae with a slight smile on his face and deep fear in his eyes. As embarrassing as it was to hear Jared’s bumbling explanation for why it would be great to hire a female engineer (but not to do so just because it’s a woman), it was a delight to watch Woods masterfully weave his character’s convoluted logic through his meek, halting delivery.
Just as they did with Russ Hanneman, the writers ably worked another character into the mix with Carla. Played with the perfect mix of steely remove and bitter sarcasm by Alice Wetterlund, Pied Piper’s new engineer jumps into the fray with both feet, whether she’s fucking with Dinesh and Gilfoyle over what she’s getting paid, or pushing Jared’s buttons by insisting that she be able to hang out with her friend known as “Cunty” at the office, thus challenging their harassment policies.
Hovering over all this comedic action was poor Erlich, who spent the episode trying to come to terms with the fact that he might never reach the level of Steve Jobs through his little incubator or through his seat on the board of Pied Piper. He’s pushed aside by Richard when he tries to offer advice during the hiring of new staff, and he’s turned away at the gate of a fundraiser held by a tech billionaire because he can’t pony up $25,000 to donate to the cause. As painful as it was to see, it is also never not funny to watch someone try to punch above their weight, particularly when it comes to trying to hobnob with the “have”s of the world. You don’t want to watch them fall flat on their face… but you just can’t turn away.
Silicon Valley returned quietly during the first three episodes of this season as the show tried to find its legs, wrestling with moving the company at the center of it all along, without the money and influence of Peter Gregory. With all of those little wrinkles smoothed out, the series now seems to have found its optimal running speed and is settling into a nice pace. Let’s all do our best to keep up.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.