Culture

Silicon Valley’s Erlich Bachman Is a Capitalist Hero

Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) in Silicon Valley (HBO)
HBO’s Silicon Valley celebrates money-making and recognizes the necessity and vitality of market competition.

It has been reported that there are two types of Silicon Valley folk who watch Silicon Valley: Those who watch it for the dead-on accuracy and those who can’t bear to watch it for the dead-on accuracy.

Week after week, now into its fourth year, the HBO Sunday-night mainstay co-created by Mike Judge not only makes supremely funny comedy out of the vainglory of today’s Masters of the Universe but delivers a sort of comedy newspaper, a bulletin from a subculture whose products increasingly rule our lives. (For a sense of how difficult it is to find a satisfying way to dramatize what’s happening in the Valley, see the inept, humorless, and pointless new Tom Hanks-Emma Watson film The Circle, which could and should have been a devastating Orwellian satire of the implications of Google’s reach but instead turned out to be a low-grade thriller.) Comedy realizes its full potential when it isn’t just funny but reveals submerged truths. Silicon Valley has plenty of hilarious, not-quite-absurd touches (as when the diffident, meek Jared, played by Zach Woods, got a ride from a driverless car which guided him straight into a shipping container which in turn didn’t open until it reached a Pacific island). But it brings us inside its subject with as much expertise as Seinfeld had about the fixations of Upper West Siders (cupcakes, soup, saying “yadda yadda”). I’m not sure any other TV comedy can rival Silicon Valley for real-world resonance; its HBO stablemate Veep, for instance, though it captures the pettiness and futility of Washington politics, is at its core an exercise in insult comedy that could be taking place anywhere.

One of the singular attributes of Silicon Valley is its unabashed capitalism. It celebrates money-making and recognizes the necessity and vitality of market competition in a ruthless Darwinian environment that heralds doom for the world’s losers. These are concepts Hollywood otherwise regards as, at best, sordid necessities. The entertainment industry isn’t shy about accumulating fantastic sums of money — and its professionals enthusiastically discuss one another’s known or suspected lucre amongst themselves — but when it comes to discussing with the outside world the mechanics of how fortunes get made in 21st-century America, Hollywood usually retreats to embarrassment, like a Victorian shying away from any reference to what happens in the bathroom. The loopiest, most irresponsible, and most marijuana-addled figure in the show, Erlich Bachman, is also its most essential because he embodies a boisterous, questing, very American drive for success. There’s something childlike and unhinged about him that makes it hard to imagine a counterpart in China or France. As played by T. J. Miller in a comedy performance for the ages, Bachman is America’s new capitalist superstar.

Bachman isn’t, like the nerds he works with at a startup called Pied Piper, a master coder but more of a figurehead: He holds a significant share of the company’s equity simply because his home is the “incubator” — in essence, free office space — where the ostensible protagonist, a gifted code writer named Richard (Thomas Middleditch), dreamed up the algorithm that is the basis of Pied Piper’s potential. Though Bachman is pompous, lazy, and ridiculous — he keeps making foolhardy decisions like blowing half a million dollars to hold a luau at Alcatraz — his bottomless reserve of self-confidence keeps saving the company from doom. Without his braggadocio Pied Piper would have foundered long ago; he has a Ph.D. in B.S.

Bachman isn’t, like the nerds he works with at a startup called Pied Piper, a master coder but more of a figurehead.

In season three, Bachman tells the others a crazy story (like most of Bachman’s tales, too long, strange, and raunchy to be related here) about how he sensed an opportunity at a fancy restaurant frequented by venture capitalists. So he turned on the swagger and chatted up Valley mogul Marc Andreessen (“I say something cryptic about the uptick and I walk away”), then bantered with venture capitalist Roger McNamee. Within half an hour he reeled in an offer of $6 million in financing that, unbeknownst to the V.C. types, was desperately needed by Pied Piper.

Bachman is an especially apt messenger for the show’s brisk rejection of sentimentalism about money. Savor this exchange from when Bachman considers selling the house where the Pied Piper crew are living and working:

Jared: You’re never gonna sell. I mean, look what’s happening here. It’s magical.

Bachman: The only thing magical is how much this house has appreciated in the last three years, Jared. I’m selling.

Jared: I mean, that’s just money. It has no real value.

Bachman: It literally defines value.

The freewheeling free-market backdrop creates a 21st-century analogue to a Wild West drama, and yet the proceedings take place in one of the most regulated states in the country. How can this happen? By ignoring the rules. In one of the show’s defining moments, a cranky neighbor in a mobility scooter threatens to report the Pied Piper boys to the authorities for running a business out of Bachman’s house. When Richard discovers the neighbor has a pet ferret, Bachman steps in to offer some attitude correction to the neighbor that amounts to a smackdown of every overreaching regulatory buzzkiller in the country:

Are you familiar with the California fish and game code, section 2116 dash 21-26? With regard to the possession and harboring of ferrets? Oh yeah. Those little sh**s are illegal. . . . You’re always going on and on about how “this is such a good neighborhood.” Do you know why it’s such a good neighborhood? Do you know why your sh**y house is worth 20 times what you paid for it in the 1970s? Because of people like us moving in and starting illegal businesses in our garages. All the best companies — Apple, Google . . . all of them were started in un-zoned garages. That is why Silicon Valley is one of the hottest neighborhoods in the world. Because of people like us. Not people like you.

Despite being mostly a sendup of insufferable egomaniacs, each of them vowing preposterously to “make the world a better place” with some unnecessary new wheeze, Silicon Valley is fueled by so much giddy capitalist chaos — so much Schumpeterian creative destruction — that it’s irresistible madcap fun. Capitalism in the show is a never-ending party to which everyone is invited, and Erlich Bachman makes for a terrifically entertaining host.

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