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‘Silicon Valley’ loses a star: Why supporting actors shine brighter on TV

LiveMint logoLiveMint 29-06-2017 Raja Sen

Erlich Bachman left Silicon Valley this week. Mike Judge’s HBO show, a savage tragicomic satire — with a jokes-per-minute strike rate superior to any show currently in production — has a delightful cast representative of most technology startups, but the finest moments and funniest lines belong to Erlich Bachman, a stoner-entrepreneur desperate to prove that he is of value. He isn’t. Yet, played unforgettably by T.J. Miller, Bachman is often responsible for keeping the narrative afloat, almost always despite rather than due to his actions.

Miller, as has been revealed, will be leaving Silicon Valley at the end of this season. There are conflicting reports as to why this hyper-successful show is letting go of its most valuable character, but either Miller is Yoko-ing himself and breaking away from the band or has become difficult to work with. Both the comedian and the show’s creators have insisted — all too gravely — that he will not be coming back. Fellow admirers of Bachman’s ability to find the profane mot juste, the most evocatively phrased filthiness, this may mean that Erlich Bachman could well be dead somewhere in Tibet clutching five years worth of opium. That, ironically enough, is a painfully sobering thought.

The show, of course, will go on. Now in its fourth season and streaming in India on Hotstar, Silicon Valley, much like the randy racehorse glimpsed on the show last year, is firing on all cylinders. The plots — and the objective of the protagonist — have become more overreachingly ambitious, the characters are more flawed and more sharply etched with each episode, and no other television show rocks the end-credits song choice this hard. Even this final season saw Miller bring his A-game, and while he didn’t have as much magic dust this time, there is certainly a chance removing such a popular figure could derail the show itself. (I personally don’t believe this will happen. Removing the too-absurd Bachman shenanigans may actually strengthen the core storyline, to be mercilessly honest.) Still, for argument’s sake, let’s suppose that — like Community crumbled without Chevy Chase — Silicon Valley does fold.

What would happen to this supremely talented cast? Kumail Nanjiani, who plays Dinesh, has already broken out and has a hotly anticipated movie, The Big Sick, coming out this week. Martin Starr, who plays Bertram, veteran of Freaks And Geeks and Party Down, will doubtless move to some other gig where he characteristically steals the show from those armed with more dialogues. Matt Ross, who plays Gavin Belson, directed the charming Captain Fantastic, which won the Un Certain Regard prize for young talent at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, and surely has more up his sleeves. Zach Woods, who plays the man everyone calls Jared when a swearword isn’t handy, is now a fan-favourite and will get snapped up.

The one I’d be worried about? Thomas Middleditch, who plays the show’s shrinking leading man, Richard Hendricks. Middleditch is great in the part, all anxiousness and elbows, and, to be fair, the writers have turned his character compellingly grey this season as he stands poised on the precipice of greatness and ruthlessness, where he could change the world but also could turn into yet another Valley shark. Still, nebbishy Richard is the sort of central character who tends to get overlooked because of the maniacs around him. (Also see: Ted from How I Met Your Mother, or even Jeff Winger from Community.) In the new season of Netflix’s Flaked, Will Arnett’s frequently messed-up Chip is basically a drab version of Arnett’s own Bojack Horseman, and why would you watch a similar character without a horse-head when the equestrian option exists? Chip is well acted, but every single one of his friends is more interesting.

Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has it even harder. In the Netflix show, not just is the titular protagonist the easiest to overlook in a stew of beautifully bonkers characters, but her storyline is by far the least compelling. At first, the endlessly sunny survivor coming to grips with modern life made for amusement, but Kimmy’s boringly up to speed in the latest season. Her expansively flaming roommate Titus Andronicus (played by Titus Burgess) always dominated the spotlight, but this third season has seen Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline emerge as the show’s true heroine, with a genuine objective and actual stakes. And while that might suit those of us who dug Krakowski in 30 Rock, it considerably lets down Fey’s new show, which must keep finding ways to give more screentime to the character whose name is in the title.

This is a problem as old as can be, and there is often a Fonz for every Richie. Why does this happen? More to the point, why didn’t it happen to Kimmy’s direct ancestor, the endlessly optimistic Leslie Knope on Parks & Recreation? Played with aggressive buoyancy by Amy Poehler, her good cheer was ever excessive, never grating. This is partly because of the force of the charisma the actor bakes into the portrayal, and secondly because, in telling stories about supporting characters who are often less constrained, some shows eventually make those parts more intriguing than the protagonist, who — in-turn — isn’t interesting enough to warrant centre-court anymore. Parks & Recreation never moved Knope and her quest from the show’s centre, and no matter how much we loved Ron Swanson, April Ludgate or Chris Treiger, it was always her story.

The answer, then, is to write inherently likeable and winning lead characters instead of ones we may become apathetic about. The answer is to stick to originally intended storylines and pacing instead of letting a show drag on and thus dilute the protagonist’s story. The answer is to give everyone room, and yet make sure the audience knows what story you’re telling. And the answer, when all else is uncertain, is to cast someone adept at show-stealing as the main lead: like, say, that curly-haired girl who played Jerry’s ex on Seinfeld. Now she could handle any ensemble.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. The writer tweets at @rajasen.

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