A 1997 Emmy winner for animated series King of the Hill, Silicon Valley co-creator Mike Judge has been a fixture at the Emmys since the HBO series’ first season, always a bridesmaid but never a bride, despite continued critical praise and a major fan base for the show.
Taking it all in stride while in the writers room for Season 5, Judge has also had to reconcile the abrupt departure of star T.J. Miller—and with him, fan favorite character Erich Bachman. A hilarious, defining voice for the series, Bachman was also somewhat peripheral to its central arc, always riding on the coattails of his more ambitious and more singularly minded tech friends.
All of this is to say that while Miller can be easily written out of the show, this does come at a loss, both to Judge and to viewers. Below, the Silicon Valley mastermind gets candid about his reaction to Miller’s departure, indicating that while Bachman is gone, Bachmanity’s insanity and unique spirit will be present in seasons to come.
As one of the creators of Silicon Valley, at what point did you come upon the arcs you would pursue in Season 4?
I remember talking about how this season, they had pivoted to different things, the platform was not working, and the thing with video chat. We just had to make a decision that they shouldn’t do that anymore, that whatever they do would take us to the end of the series.
We started with that, and we’ve been talking about this decentralized internet thing for a while, and we just thought, That’s a big play, really swinging for the fences, and that would be a good thing. There’s different levels to it, and we saw that as something that would take us to the series endpoint. That was our thinking, figuring out what the first stage of that would be, and that was the storage thing.
This all sounds like very boring, technical stuff but we have to start with what the show wanted to be from the beginning, having the art and the drama even though it’s a comedy. That’s how it always wanted to be, so we followed that.
Technology has evolved, and the series has evolved with it. How have you managed to stay current and in touch with how the real Silicon Valley is evolving?
We do a ton of research. We’re lucky to have some really good consultants, and all these people in the real Silicon Valley reach out to us and tell us stories, and that they’re fans of show. The two go hand in hand. In the writing process, we almost always have a consultant available, or in the room—Jonathan Dotan, and Todd Silverstein have been really helpful. He’s a guy who’s been in the world; a brilliant guy, really funny and he gets the comedy of it.
We’ll just ask a lot of questions, come up with an idea and say, “Hey, is there a way that this could happen? Would that be believable?” Sometimes, the answer’s no. A lot of times it’ll be, like, “No, but you could do this.” So we really start from there.
Per your research, is the idea of a decentralized internet a plausible or likely model for the way technology will progress?
The decentralized internet was something that Jonathan Dotan told us about toward the end of Season 1. He was talking about places like China where the government can just shut down any ISP, and if you had a decentralized thing that’s basically like BitCoin, that goes across so many different devices and hard drives, then you can’t just isolate it and shut it down. That was something that a lot of people had been talking about for a while.
I don’t know if it’s luck, or a combination of luck and good instincts, but these things seem to be happening out in the world, either as we’re doing them or right after, and this one, people had been talking about for a while. It helps. I have learned a lot about this world by having these people around. I do have an engineering background—I’ve programmed a little bit—so I can understand a lot of this stuff. But everyone does, really. It doesn’t take much to see this in the future.
Has the notion of Richard “breaking bad” and compromising his morals for his professional ambitions always been at the heart of your designs for the series?
The thing that happened in Season 4 is something that we had talked about during the pilot and writing the first season. When we started writing that first season, we had all these ideas for big moves, and we ended up just pacing it a little bit.
But that was sort of the promise of the series, to see whether this guy is going to become like Gavin Belson or not, and is it even possible to compete with all these giant companies and be completely ethical—and I think, a lot of times, it’s not. You sort of justify it and say, “Well, better that I’m in control of this than that asshole over there.” The ends justify the means, and before you know it, you’re as corrupt as anyone else.
That’s what we were heading towards all along, and it was nice to really go for it this season.
How have you struck a balance on set between the comedic and the dramatic? Silicon Valley leans both ways, and can quickly jump between the two.
I was really impressed with what Thomas [Middleditch] and Zach [Woods] did with all those moments that we wrote for them. I was blown away by what great dramatic actors they were. To me, it seems like comedy is more difficult than drama, and if you’ve done the comedy part well, you make it look easier than it is. I think with a lot of comedy people, like Robin Williams or Steve Buscemi, people are surprised when they’re great dramatic actors, but I think it’s more similar than it might seem.
This season featured some stunning and hilarious visual moments—Huli-Con’s exploding phones come to mind. Which scenes are you most proud of?
Some of them are kind of small things. There’s a scene where Richard’s telling Jared to go to the other company and work for Dinesh. He walks off into the other room, and—I was kind of proud of this—we kept the camera crew in place, and had Zach enter from the side. For me, it’s almost a horror movie-type thing, I suppose. It’s fun to take stuff like that and use it in a different way than it is normally used.
The phone thing, I actually love special effect stuff. It was a lot of coordinating. We had a bunch of extras that were not professional extras—they were people that were actually with those companies. These are successful tech people who are not used to being told to be quiet and stand over there, and, “No, you’re not going to be in the shot.” That was a little tough.
There’s a scene in the first episode where Jack’s going down to the basement. We had this elevator at the location and it stopped at the bottom floor, and I was looking at it, thinking, “Oh, that would be really funny if it just kept going.” So, that was a digital shot that hopefully people didn’t think was digital.
I like those where you don’t really know whether it’s digital or not. Typically, when we’re writing, when we get the script done, I guess it’s what any director does—I just go away and imagine it in my head, and get as close to that as I can. There’s another one that I was proud of, the one where Gavin looks at the focus group and there’s all these girls and then the one creepy guy in the back. That one was lot of, “Okay, let’s figure out what he’s going to be wearing.” We picked the guy, and then it’s like “Okay, let’s give him a Mr. Rogers sweater,” getting all that to work and be funny. When it was working, I was really, really happy with it. That was a tough one to do.
It’s not uncommon for the mastermind behind a series to direct the first and last episodes of a season, but is there a challenge in that?
It’s always a challenge and can be stressful, but I really love doing it. It’s a good feeling, especially now, because during the first season, you never know if people are going to connect with these characters and the story. Usually, if I’m feeling really good about it, it’s usually going to work for somebody, somewhere. But now that it’s working and people are connecting with it, it’s a little less stressful than it was in the very beginning.
Alec Berg preferred not to speak on the subject, but do you have any comment on T.J. Miller’s abrupt departure and the comments he made in the press?
Well, I think I’m probably with Alec, in that not a lot of good can come from talking about it. T.J.’s one of the most naturally funny people I’ve ever seen, but there’s really not much to say. He didn’t want to do it anymore. It’s pretty much said in his interviews, what’s happened, that he wants to do other stuff. But if you know T.J., none of this seems all that unusual or crazy, I guess.
Do you have a sense yet of how Erlich’s departure will inform the narrative going forward?
Because of the nature of the story we created, it was actually getting difficult to keep his character involved in the company. He owned the house, so if they move out of the house, they don’t see him, and when they moved into the offices, we had this thing where he’s not coming with them. And then the whole thing about who’s pushing this false narrative that they have nothing to do, which we had in, I think, the sixth or seventh episode.
This is us trying to find a way to work him in. We did that because he’s definitely good for the show—hilarious, and brilliant, and all that. But from a writing standpoint, it’s actually not that hard to work around. We’ve got some funny things I can’t spoil, but I think we’ll keep the spirit of Erlich in there for a little while.