As I discussed last week, T.J. Miller won a well-deserved Critics’ Choice Award for his perfectly braggadocious performance as the pothead Steve Jobs wannabe Erlich Bachman. But tucked away in the nominees list was another equally deserving candidate in Thomas Middleditch.
From a purely social psychology standpoint, it makes sense that Miller is the one getting all the accolades. Erlich is the kind of guy that you wouldn’t mind hanging out with every once in a while. He’s got an often-embarrassing and easily bruised ego, but he’s also the guy with the best drugs. You can put up with the bloviating as long as he passes the bong while he does it.
Middleditch’s character, Richard, on the other hand is more like a small bird that’s fallen out of its nest. You want to help it somehow, but it’s far too fragile to pick up and care for. He’s also the schlemiel of the show, the constantly put-upon presence that can’t stop stumbling over his own words and actions.
Middleditch does an incredible job bringing this character to life. And over the last few weeks, we’ve been seeing more and more life in Richard than ever before, as he faces the many obstacles being thrown in his path or that he’s created all on his own. Watching him face down an arbitration hearing that could theoretically spell the end of Pied Piper was marvelous. His stammering explanation that the “girlfriend” he referred to in emails was actually his laptop (“Because it’s the only warm thing that’s touched my crotch in a long time…”) was perfectly cringe-inducing, and it was easy to feel deeply for him as he owned up to the fact that he once used a Hooli computer to work on his compression algorithm. There’s little in this story that the average viewer can relate to, but Middleditch finds a way to make Richard seem much more human than the tech gurus we know by name.
That’s the strange alchemy that goes into picking the actors to populate a comedy show. As addressed in the recent New Yorker article about Allison Jones, the casting director behind The Office and Freaks And Geeks among other shows, it’s a delicate process to find the right fit. When it does work, it’s like watching a magic trick being performed.
For Silicon Valley that goes for the main characters just as much as it does for the supporting and guest roles. It was a shot of pure delight when veteran character actor Matt McCoy appeared on screen in the role of Jerry Sunshine, the lawyer overseeing Pied Piper’s arbitration case. Unshaven and trying to maintain his dignity, he rattled off a laundry list of misdeeds including drug abuse and violations of the Mann Act that caused him to be disbarred with the steely reserve that he’s brought to his many dramatic roles. It was one of those scenes that shifted the energy of the show just enough that we were left trying to find our feet again.
As they do every week, the pleasures of this show went beyond the casting choices. Dan O’Keefe had some fun working in a discussion of Schrodinger’s cat between the engineers on the Pied Piper team, and hinged much of the action of the episode on a version of the real-life incident when an Apple engineer left his iPhone prototype at a bar. It’s a fine mixture of absurdity and reality that is par for the course for the TV writer responsible for introducing Festivus into the world. With O’Keefe’s able guidance, the groundwork was laid, allowing for those stinging moments like Erlich attempting to cover over Richard’s admission of guilt by claiming that he was “the girlfriend” mentioned in the emails and the visible fun that Gilfoyle and Dinesh were having winding poor Jared up with their quantum mechanics theorizing.
This episode of Silicon Valley is really further proof of how the perfect combination of writing and acting can elevate a sitcom beyond its time and place. Like fellow sitcoms such as Maude and A Different World, this show is very much a product of the era in which it is being made. But like those shows, it is going to have a very long tail of influence and impact that will make it perfectly watchable for years to come.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.